Friday 30 January 2015

The Saudi royals: not people to do business with

I wonder what was going through David Cameron's mind as he cleared his diary to rush off to the funeral of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. (I'm not too bothered about what went through Prince Charles's mind -- going to foreign funerals is what he's paid for.)

By most people's standards, the Saudi monarch was a brutal tyrant. Or, if we're feeling generous, he presided over a tyrannical regime. If he was, as so many commentators insisted, a reformer at heart, he was a remarkably unsuccessful one.

I understand the need for diplomatic niceties to be observed. That's why when a royal head of state dies, I'm perfectly happy for one of our royals to attend the funeral. But why on earth do we have to send the prime minister as well?

Perhaps you think it's because we still need their oil. Well, no, in fact -- only 4 per cent of the UK's imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia -- most of it comes from Norway (42 per cent), Algeria (14 per cent) and Nigeria (13 per cent).

No. The real answer is that the Saudis buy obscene quantities of UK armaments. So British policy towards Saudi Arabia can best be represented by a single symbol: a great big dollar sign.  Moreover, in a region that becomes ever more violent and unstable (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon), Saudi Arabia appears -- repeat appears -- to be a rare island of relative tranquillity. These days, for Western leaders worried about where the next jihadi outrage will strike, that's worth a lot.

It is also woefully short-sighted. Because the truth is that the motivating ideology that infects the jihadi killers on the streets of Europe's capitals comes directly from the very same city where Mr Cameron, Prince Charles and the rest of them congregated to pay their respects to the departed Saudi monarch.

My heart sinks as I write the word "respects". Respects to an absolute monarch in a kingdom that publicly beheads miscreants, publicly flogs bloggers, and still forbids women from driving or travelling without the permission of a male guardian? Does realpolitik know no boundaries at all? Would they genuflect to Kim Jong-un of North Korea as well if he bought enough of our weapons?    

There are nearly as many strands in Islam as there are in Christianity. Most of them pose no greater threat to non-Muslims than the Quakers do to non-Christians. But it is the world's great misfortune that the strand espoused by the richest and most reactionary rulers in the Muslim world is also the most ruthlessly exported. Visit almost any country on earth where there are Muslims and there you will find mosques built and financed by Saudi cash.

These days, the Saudis profess to be as worried about jihadi murderers as everyone else, but whether that anxiety is matched by effective action against the propagandists, financiers and others who back the most extreme elements in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere remains open to doubt.

What is not in doubt is that the Saudi royals are deeply concerned at the spread of Iranian-backed Shi'ism in the region -- and even more concerned at the prospect of Iran finally doing a deal over its nuclear research programme and being re-admitted into what we fondly refer to as the "international community". The Saudis have always regarded themselves as the rightful rulers of the whole of the Islamic world; after all, their country is where the prophet Mohammad was born and lived, and where their religion was created. Iran, and Shi'ism, which Saudi clerics regard much as Pope Leo X regarded Martin Luther in the 16th century, threaten Saudi hegemony.

President Obama, who was accompanied in Riyadh by Mrs Obama and a host of US dignatories, wants to keep the Saudis onside. No one in Washington has forgotten, or will ever forget, that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 came from Saudi Arabia.

And if you've been following the entirely specious "row" over why Mrs Obama didn't cover her head during their visit (a wonderful demonstration of feminist courage, according to her supporters; a disgraceful demonstration of disrespect to a key ally, according to her Republican critics), you may be interested to know that she was in good company. On previous visits to the desert kingdom, former First Lady Laura Bush, ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and German chancellor Angela Merkel have all appeared bare-headed.

I've even come across a 30-year-old photo of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, also bare-headed on a visit to Saudi. And she wasn't exactly one of the world's most outspoken feminists, or one to disrespect a valued ally, especially as it was she who signed the UK's most lucrative arms contract ever with the Saudis: the al-Yamamah deal, worth something like £40 billion to the British defence firm BAE.

The Saudi royal family are not the kind of people we should be doing business with. The only reason to stay on speaking terms with them is that if they are overthrown, they could well be followed by something even worse.

Still, wouldn't it be nice if, like Germany, we could halt our arms sales to what is undoubtedly one of the nastiest regimes on the planet. And when the new king dies -- he's already 79 -- perhaps we could send Prince Charles on his own. I'm sure he'd manage just fine.

Friday 23 January 2015

A test that Europe must not fail

It looks as if 2015 could turn out to be Europe's Year of the Insurgents. It's going to be a rough ride, and the rise of the insurgents is only one of three major challenges that the continent now faces.

In Greece's elections this Sunday, the left-wing, anti-austerity Syriza party look likely to win. Then in May, UKIP may win enough seats in the House of Commons to play what could be an important role in any post-election cross-party negotiations. And in December, Spanish voters will go to the polls, with the left-wing Podemos group currently tipped to win.

Left-wing? Right-wing? How very last century the terms now sound, with the leader of the National Front in France, Marine Le Pen, openly backing Syriza in Greece. What unites the insurgents is not a coherent ideology but a visceral anger at traditional political elites and the post-2008 political consensus.

Some of the insurgents appeal to voters who have had enough of tolerating ethnic and religious minorities, of open borders, and of supra-national identities. Others aim their anger principally at corrupt political leaders, bonus-benefitting bankers, and a remote EU bureaucracy.

And if Syriza win in Greece on Sunday, they may well provide a huge shot in the arm for other insurgent parties elsewhere. (I somehow doubt, by the way, that Thursday's announcement of a massive quantitative easing programme by the European Central Bank will have much of an effect on Greek voters.)

It doesn't even matter what exactly the insurgents stand for -- UKIP, for example, seem to be having terrible trouble putting together a manifesto and have just sacked the man who was meant to be writing one. It's enough for them simply to say to voters: "Look at us. We're not like the rest of them. We're like you."

Now imagine what the political landscape might look like if there's another atrocity similar to the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket attacks in Paris. What might that do to the strength of ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment? 

So that's the second major challenge facing Europe: how to react if there are more mass murders on the streets of the continent's major cities. There is, in fact, a precedent: in the 1970s and 80s, the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany faced attacks by the IRA, Red Brigades, ETA, and Baader Meinhof gang respectively, without succumbing to outright totalitarianism. Perhaps that provides us with just a crumb of comfort.

On the other hand, political and intelligence chiefs are now insisting that they need more snooping powers to confront current threats, when we know that the Paris gunmen, just like the killers of Lee Rigby in south London in 2013, were already known to them. What they really need, surely, are more analysts and better systems to enable them to make better-informed judgements about which of their targets are the greatest threat.

That leaves Europe's third challenge: how to deal with Vladimir Putin. His land-grab in Ukraine is a clear attempt to test Europe's mettle at a time when he believes that the continent has neither the will nor the resources to push back. So far, he has been proved right, although the collapse in the price of oil, which is doing immense damage to the Russian economy, may soon prove to be a greater brake on his ambitions than anything Europe or NATO can do.

More than at any time since the end of the Cold War, Europe needs clear, determined leaders who can calm voters' anger and offer reassurance that better times are coming, especially for those who have been hardest hit by the age of austerity. Anger, fear and intolerance of minorities are a highly dangerous mix -- we have seen before where they can lead when populist politicians fan the flames. The coming year will be a test that Europe must not fail.

Friday 16 January 2015

A warning for the Windsors

Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is a very lucky man. If it hadn't been for the appalling events in Paris last week, he would still be all over the front pages.

Perhaps you've already forgotten why. It's because of a lawsuit brought in Florida by a woman who alleges that she was forced to have sex with him while she was still, under Florida law, a minor. (She was 17 at the time of the alleged encounters -- in Florida, the age of consent is set at 18. In the UK, it's 16.)

The woman claims that she was ordered to have sex with him by the financier Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender who was at the time a friend of the prince's. (Epstein served 13 months of an 18-month jail sentence for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution.)

It is important to note that Buckingham Palace has emphatically denied that Prince Andrew had any sexual contact with the woman who filed the lawsuit, and says her claims are "without any foundation". It remains to be seen whether the claims, and the Prince's denials, will ever be tested in a court of law.

Does it matter? Well, for a start, we have learned over the past couple of years not to dimiss out of hand allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. They need to be taken seriously, and they need to be investigated.

We also need to recognise that members of the royal family are not above the law. As The Times pointed out in a notably unfriendly editorial, King Juan Carlos of Spain abdicated last year amid serious allegations against members of his family, and his daughter could face trial for fraud. (Juan Carlos is now also facing a paternity suit in the Spanish supreme court.) "No royal family," thundered The Thunderer, "is indispensable, or permanent." Windsors, watch out.

As it happens, I don't think Prince Andrew is a serious threat to the survival of the House of Windsor. Even as the Queen's second son, he's pretty low down the succession pecking order, below Charles, William, the infant Prince George and Harry. And after all, our history is littered with princes behaving badly.

The real threat to the family firm is Andrew's big brother. To put it bluntly, it seems that Charles has no intention of shutting up even after he is enthroned. Admittedly, that may not be any time soon. The Queen, now aged 88, is still in apparently excellent health and well on the way to exceeding Queen Victoria's record as Britain's longest-reigning monarch. And her mother, you'll remember, made it to 101.

For Charles to sound off about his various pet obsessions (architecture, education, farming, alternative medicine) might be just about OK as long as he's a mere Prince of Wales, but it'll be very different once he's King. We've grown to like our monarchs as the Victorians liked their children: seen, but not heard. If they're going to be figureheads, a symbol of unity not division, the less they say, the better. "Have you been here long?" and "Isn't that lovely?" have served the Queen perfectly well for more than 60 years.

(I'm told, by the way, that she's a great deal more outspoken in private -- but everyone who meets her seems to take a voluntary vow of perpetual silence. I've never understood why.)

Charles, it seems, has different ideas. A report in The Guardian a couple of months ago quoted unidentified sources close to him as saying he intends to reshape the monarch’s role when he becomes king and make “heartfelt interventions” in national life. He is, said the sources, "set to continue to express concerns and ask questions about issues that matter to him … "

This does not bode well. We know he's already in the habit of sending lengthy handwritten notes to various government ministers, drawing their attention to whatever is uppermost in his mind. I fail to understand why ministers consider that they need to reply in any detail: I would have thought "The minister thanks you for your comments, which have been noted" would do perfectly well. But that's not Whitehall's way, apparently.

Unless Charles learns to bite his lip, he's going to find himself -- and the monarchy -- in trouble. It's already possible that the Queen will find herself in a tricky position after the next election, if it doesn't provide a nice clear result. What should she do, for example, if the party that wins the most seats isn't the one that won the most votes? Whom should she invite to form a new government: the leader of the party with the most votes, or the one with the most seats? If it were Charles in her place, he might be tempted to suggest that he takes over instead.

By happy coincidence, a play currently showing in London's West End ("King Charles III" by Mike Bartlett) imagines what might happen if Charles does indeed carry out his threat to become an activist monarch. Written in Shakespearian blank verse, the play has Charles refusing to sign an act of parliament with which he disagrees, because he fears that unless he makes a stand, he would "possess not mouth nor tongue nor brain, instead I am an empty vessel, waiting for instruction, soulless and uncorporate." 

The play builds to a thrilling climax, when William and an unexpectedly forceful Kate compel Charles to abdicate in their favour. It's dramatic licence, of course ...

Saturday 10 January 2015

Lest we forget

After the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, on the streets of south London in May 2013, I made a list of some previous acts of politically-inspired killing that had nothing to do with Islam or any perverted interpretation of it. Perhaps this is a good time to republish it.

In 1971, Robert Campbell killed 15 people in a bomb attack on McGurk's bar in Belfast. He was not a Muslim. 

In 1984, the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her security guards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. They weren't Muslims either.

In 1991, a suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam blew herself up and killed Indira Gandhi's son and heir apparent, Rajiv.  She was not Muslim.

In 1994, Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a mosque in Hebron, in the West Bank, and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers. As you might have guessed, he wasn't a Muslim.

In 1998, 29 people were killed in a bomb attack in Omagh, in northern Ireland. Not one of the bombers was Muslim.

No, I haven't forgotten 9/11, or Bali 2002, Madrid 2004, London 2005, or Mumbai 2008.

Nor have I forgotten Anders Breivik (Oslo 2011) or Adam Lanza (Newtown, Connecticut, 2012).

Murder is murder.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Je suis Charlie

In the aftermath of an atrocity as horrifying as the Paris murders on Wednesday, it is more important than ever to be crystal clear about the freedoms that we hold most dearly.

Freedom of expression, which must always include the freedom to offend and to ridicule. Satire is an essential part of a democracy. Incitement to hatred and to violence are crimes; incitement to mockery is not.

Freedom of religion, including religions deemed offensive by others, so long as they do not impinge on the rights of non-adherents or coerce non-believers into acceptance of their teachings.

Freedom from fear, including the fear of being different, or of speaking out, or of questioning majority beliefs. Above all, the freedom from the fear of being murdered.

Democracies are not "under attack" by jihadis. (And let's hear no more about the threats to "Western" democracies, given that India, Pakistan and Indonesia have all suffered in exactly the same way as Paris, Madrid, London and New York. How quickly we have forgotten the massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar just last month.)

The language of war is grotesquely inappropriate, as surely we should have learned post-9/11. To use it is to fall into the trap set by mass murderers. Those who kill, no matter for what reason or clothed in what rhetoric, are killers, and should be prosecuted as such, in exactly the same way as any other law-breakers. They are criminals, not holy warriors, however they might choose to describe themselves.

Let's take a leaf from Norway's book, and recall how it dealt with Anders Behring Breivik, the man who slaughtered more than 70 people, most of them teenagers, in 2011. He, too, described himself as an ideologue, but he was prosecuted as a common criminal.

Tolerance is a value to be cherished, but there is no virtue in tolerating those who murder. The only effective way to counter the threat posed by killers like the Paris gunmen is by good police work based on good intelligence work, carried out with full regard for the basic human rights to privacy and freedom of belief.

A mature democracy must be able to tolerate those who preach against democracy. But it can never tolerate those who kill, or seek to kill, those with whom they disagree. It is not a difficult line to draw.

In a free society, you are free to believe whatever you like: that the earth is flat, that the moon is made of green cheese, or that God is alive and well and running a corner shop in Neasden. Likewise, I am free to mock you, laugh at you and offend you -- but I am not free to kill you, or to incite others to do so.

It is futile to talk of "defeating" those who think differently. But it is far from futile -- indeed it is an absolute necessity -- to prevent them from using violence in the furtherance of their beliefs.

Charlie Hebdo is often offensive, deliberately provocative and frequently vulgar. That is its point -- and that is the point of a free society. The kind of freedom I value includes the freedom to be all those things, as well as the freedom to protest against it, peacefully and within the law.

There is a vast gulf separating the mindsets of those who used their guns to kill in Paris and those who use their pens to mock. It is a gulf that cannot be bridged. But it was succintly and accurately defined by The Guardian's media commentator Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London's City University.

"Satire challenges sacred cows, but it does not slaughter them. Satire hurts, but it does not cause physical injury. Satire wounds, but it does not kill."

And that is why the pen will always be mightier than the sword.