Friday, March 27, 2009

West turns blind eye to friend it dare not offend

Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
Times Online

Shortly before noon on September 12, 2001, a visitor stopped by the palace, looking for Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, the Crown Prince. The man who now sits on the throne of Saudi Arabia was kneeling in shock and prayer. He had prayed there all night and had received news from Washington, but could still not believe that the hijackers who crashed their planes into New York and Washington were his countrymen.

That experience is credited widely as part of the impetus behind King Abdullah’s attempts to reform his reactionary kingdom. But Saudi Arabia remains as he did that night – in deep denial. However, it is also a rich and powerful country on which the West depends heavily for oil, and those who do business with it have learnt better than to risk puncturing its self-deluding bubble.

Terrorism remains its most sensitive point. Since September 11 Saudi Arabia has declared itself at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, cracking down on home-grown militants, inviting Western journalists to film its antiterrorist forces in training and launching a much vaunted project to rehabilitate violent Islamists. It also sought to remake its international image as a factory of extremism with the sponsorship of an interfaith conference in New York.
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But Saudi billions fund the promotion of extreme forms of Islam around the world. Saudi is the home of Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that it has pioneered and the faith espoused by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers.

An estimated $90 billion (£62 billion) of Saudi money has gone to build mosques and madrassas, distribute religious literature and fund Islam across the world, with a portion of it, according to terrorism experts, directly or indirectly funding the violent expression of those beliefs.

Jonathan Evans, the director-general of M15, told the Government last year that the Saudi Government’s multimillion-dollar donations to British universities had led to a “dangerous increase in the spread of extremism in leading university campuses”.

Official slights like these are rare. Saudi Arabia, in the words of a former diplomat there, “gets away with things other countries could not” because of the West’s dependence on it – for oil, for arms contracts, for intelligence, for military bases and for being a firm friend in an often unfriendly neighbourhood.

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