2000s >> 2007 >> no-1240-december-2007

Greasy Pole: It’s Nice to Have Friends

In Saudi, helping the police with their enquiries can mean systematic torture in a room described by a British man roped in in 2001 as having “…years’ worth of blood on the floor that nobody bothered to clean”.

As a TV spectacle it was some way behind Coronation Street’s Sarah Platt and Jason Grimshaw navigating their way through a chaotic, unpromising wedding. The other soap opera, at Buckingham Palace, had a cast of hundreds, rather more expensively dressed than our Sarah and Jason and making their way to the banquet through a corridor of bowing flunkeys. At their head the Queen strode as grimly as if she was flouncing out of (or should that be into?) a session with a top society photographer. Prince Philip’s face hinted that he might have been reviewing his stock of undiplomatic racist quips. And there was the king of Saudi Arabia otherwise known as The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Abdullah Bin Abdul Azaz Al Saud, whose very presence reveals a lot about that country – for example the fact that he is one of his father’s 37 sons.

About Saudi Arabia more later. Of more pressing interest about the guests at that banquet to welcome the 82 year old dictator of that brutal., oil rich country was Gordon Brown parading rigidly encased in white tie and tails, perhaps trying to hide his embarrassment in submerged conversation with a wide-eyed, scuttling Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, similarly garbed. What did they find to talk about, so intently? Was it the fact that Brown always made a point of refusing to get himself up in the manner demanded by the etiquette of such occasions – like the London Lord Mayor’s Mansion House banquet? Brown’s stand on this matter – he once let it be known it was all to do with principle – would cause not a few crimson robes to rustle and not a few chains of office to jangle, in disapproval. His going back on what he called principle was an indication that this was an event far more important than any gathering of over-fed, over-rich City grandees slapping each others’ backs and their own comfortable stomachs.


Saudi Arabia means oil, which also means the attention, and wherever possible the intrusion, of capitalism’s great economic and military powers. Crucially, Saudi oil lies close to the surface, which enables it to be extracted faster and cheaper. The first concession to get at the black, vital stuff was granted to a British company in 1933; another, to the American firm Standard Oil Company, in 1934. Symbolically, the company’s name was changed in 1944 to ARAMCO – Arabian American Oil Company – and as larger reserves were found other companies came in with capital investment, effectively exerting a stranglehold on the country. Predictably, other American companies were commissioned by ARAMCO to develop the country’s infrastructure – the giant Bechtel imported their mammoth plant to lay down roads, ports, power plants and the schools and hospitals to support them. TWA provided a passenger air service, the Ford Foundation advised (which may not be exactly the correct word for what they provided) on administration; and the US Army Engineers set up a TV and broadcasting service and helped develop Saudi Arabia’s “defence” industry. The first great oil boom in the early 1950s dramatically altered the country from a bleak, infertile slab of the Middle East, enabling royals who, for all their exalted status, had been able to do little better than live on local dates and milk from camels, to swan around the flesh pots of the Mediterranean in their gleaming yachts and to practically take root in the casinos. This was a startlingly abrupt change, overwhelmingly to the benefit of the ruling families; at a recent air show in Dubai a billionaire Saudi prince ordered a personal luxury version of the Airbus 380 which, with a few essential extras, will set him back somewhere in the region of two hundred and thirty million pounds.

Common Values

At the banquet in Buckingham Palace the Queen took the opportunity to inform the Saudi royal about her esteem for his country and the comfort she takes from the close ties between Saudi and Britain: “It is a great pleasure to welcome King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to London once more….We have shared values that stem from two great religious traditions…we must continue to work together to promote common values…” Harping on the same happy theme was Kim Howells, who during the 1960s was a left wing student firebrand, then official in the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984 strike and is now Labour MP for Pontypridd and Foreign Office Minister. Howells is famous for speaking his mind no matter what the consequences; for example as Minister of Culture he felt free to lash out at the Turner Prize candidates as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bull”. He is also on record as describing the royal family as “all a bit bonkers” but this did not prevent him agreeing with the Queen about Saudi Arabia as he rhapsodised about those same “shared values” .

We have not yet been told by either the Queen or Howells what they meant by the phrase .Was it the fact that Saudi Arabian women are treated as rather lower than second class, forbidden to go out unless with a male under pain of being beaten up by the uniformed thugs of the chillingly titled Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice? Perhaps they hope that Britain copies the penal system in Saudi, where helping the police with their enquiries can mean systematic torture in a room described by a British man roped in in 2001 as having “…years’ worth of blood on the floor that nobody bothered to clean”. Or the extravagant use of the death penalty for, among other offenders, actively gay people or anyone having extra-marital sex. According to Amnesty International there have been 124 executions so far this year. These have been mostly by beheading and sometimes in public; an official executioner has set the grisly scene by assuring everyone that he keeps his sword razor sharp and that his children learn to grow up into good Saudis by helping him clean it. “People” he tells us proudly “are amazed at how fast it can separate the head from the body”.

In fact it would probably be difficult to find anyone to take seriously that nonsense about “shared values”. What connects the ruling elites of Britain and Saudi Arabia is much harsher – the fact that so much of the world’s oil is under Saudi control (one estimate puts it as high as 25 percent] and the existence of a mouthwateringly massive export market, including one for billions of pounds worth of armaments, all nourished through an artery of bribery. This is yet another example of human debasement driven by capitalism’s profit motive justifying untold lies, cruelty, corruption, murder. It can also persuade Gordon Brown to dress up for an evening out with a pitiless international gangster.

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