Diplomacy often calls for pretence and evasion to further the needs of nations but rarely in such public fashion as this week. The state visit to Britain by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is an expression of base politics and supposed mutual advantage, lacking the honour and glory that ought to characterise such events. It was exposed as such even before the Saudi monarch and the many princes and aides who accompanied him landed at Heathrow. If their visit was intended to celebrate relations between the two countries and extend commercial ties, then it went wrong at the start, when David Miliband decided to cancel a meeting with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, because of his newly adopted second son. Nor did King Abdullah’s remarks on Sunday in a BBC interview suggest an visit based on mutual respect. He claimed to have provided information that could have stopped terrorist attacks in 2005. Downing Street immediately and correctly disagreed.
Without even a show of harmony, Britain is treating its Saudi visitors to gilded carriages and a royal banquet not because of any real respect, but because of their oil wealth and strategic position. There is nothing new about such special treatment, of course, and the government would argue that however distasteful it is also essential. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s principal ally in the Middle East, fundamentally involved not just in a trading relationship and the supply of oil, but in Iraq, counter-terrorism and the containment of Iran. It has a critical role to play in the forthcoming Middle East talks in Annapolis, Maryland. Successive British governments have exempted Saudi Arabia from laws and moral judgments that are applied to other nations because of this importance.