Saudis fear that Britain sees them as the next Iran
Saudi officials believe that Britain and the US have begun a smear campaign against their country, writes John Simpson.
There was silence among the orderly lines of men sitting cross-legged down the length of a hall in the King Abd-al Aziz Mosque. Someone looked at his watch. Another man fiddled with the box of food in front of him, caught the disapproving looks of his neighbours, and stopped.
Then came the stuttering of a microphone, and expectant movement in the lines. The instant the muezzin's voice proclaimed the end of the day's fasting, the hungry men pulled their boxes open and started eating. The warm evening air was filled with the smell of chicken and saffron rice. Iftar, the evening feast, had begun.
The holy month of Ramadan is a bad time to visit Saudi Arabia if you want to do business. This year it is worse then usual: to the irritation of the Saudi government, the British Foreign Office and the American State Department have warned people not to come here unless they have to.
Half a column-inch in the newspapers here hints at the reason: a senior al-Qaeda figure, Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj, has sent out an e-mail promising "devastating attacks" during Ramadan. This is presumably part of the information the British and Americans have based their warnings on. It looks to me as though al-Ablaj is talking about Iraq, but now that people have taken to suing their governments for not telling them the obvious, the State Department and the Foreign Office tend to warn first and ask questions afterwards.
This has, of course, got up the nose of the Saudis in no small way. The government here maintains that it has a very firm grip on the security situation. Six hundred suspects have been arrested since April, and 3,500 Muslim clerics have been sent for "re-education". At Friday prayers two days ago, the sermon I heard could have been written by the Ministry of Information, it was so politically correct.
The irritation with Britain and America is widespread throughout officialdom, from Saudi Arabia's urbane ambassador to London, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to his relative Prince Sultan, the minister of defence. Last Thursday, choosing his words carefully, Prince Sultan told a group of generals who came to offer their Ramadan greetings that there was a smear campaign against the kingdom. "We are neither terrorists nor parasites," he said.
In other words, he was responding angrily to accusations in Washington that Saudi Arabia, the recipient in the past of so much American military support, is somehow behind the new wave of anti-American violence.
Here, most people seem to take it for granted that the United States has shifted decisively away from Saudi Arabia as a result of the September 11 attacks. They see the invasion of Iraq as being America's way of securing a safe supply of oil for the future, and assume that the shifting of US military bases from here to Qatar and Iraq symbolises the parting of the ways.
As for the British attitude, it is a source of annoyance rather than anger. The Saudis expect a greater sensitivity and understanding from the British, and feel that they haven't had it. Senior government figures scan British statements anxiously for any sign that London believes that Saudi Arabia is going the way of Iran, a generation ago; and they feel they can spot them.
Having watched the course of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, I think the similarities are exaggerated - and yet the danger is clearly there. The Shah, too, tried to re-educate his clergy, but he did it the hard way and simply reinforced their anger and willingness to be martyred. In the teeming slums of Teheran his soldiers shot down the demonstrators, while he himself vacillated between toughness and conciliation.
The Saudis are aware of the precedent, though they feel that the experiences of a Shi'ite state have little relevance to them. Perhaps they are right, but history never repeats itself precisely. Two weeks ago, hundreds of Saudis demonstrated for economic and political reform in the streets of Riyadh; since demonstrations are illegal here, the police dispersed them with tear gas and arrested a hundred or more.
As in Iran in 1978, the opposition comes as much from liberals as from fundamentalists, and they have a tendency to make a brief, tactical alliance, though it doesn't last long. Like the Shah, the Saudi government is experimenting with a little ultra-cautious liberalisation: press restraints are marginally fewer, and there will be limited elections next year.
These are nerve-racking times for the Saudi government. It feels abandoned by its friends and increasingly threatened by its enemies, and the princes who control most of the ministries cannot agree on the right way forward. Maybe Ramadan will pass off without the attacks the Americans and British have warned about; even so, the political choices here won't be any easier.
John Simpson is the BBC's World Affairs Editor http://www.portal.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=%2Fnews%2F2003%2F11%2F02%2Fwsimp02.xml
"Laws should be so appropriate to the people for whom they are made that it is very unlikely that the laws of one nation can suit another." - from 'The Spirit of the Laws' by Montesquieu.
Montesquieu was one of the primary sources read by the founders of the United States. Even before the second World War he was often required reading in American high schools. That is not true now, and most likely, Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration doesn't own a single copy. If they do, we certainly can say they have either never read him or never taken him seriously.