Saudi embarrassment

The killing or the homosexuality – which seems worse to the folks back home?

The news that a Saudi prince is on trial in London for killing an aide who was reputedly also his gay lover will be enormously embarrassing to the government back in Riyadh. Saudis dislike bad publicity intensely, and especially when it involves a case as horrific as an alleged princely murder — as we in Britain should know well. In 1980, the Saudi government expelled our ambassador and banned Concorde from its airspace after ITV screened Death of a Princess, about a young member of the royal family who was executed for the "crime" of conducting a secret relationship.

In the opinion of David Gardner, author of Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance (and who wrote a fascinating essay on Saudi Arabia for the NS last year): "This prince has become a very hot potato for the Saudi ruling family. Though a minor princeling, he is the grandson of a king who has tried to project an image of austere probity, to limit the power of the clerical establishment and curb the excesses of the more wayward and corrupt royals.

"Then along comes this . . . which presses just about every Wahhabi button in its transgression: murder and homosexuality against a backdrop of phenomenal quantities of alcohol and drugs."

Shamefully, however, just as humiliating for the royal family will be the revelations that Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud, who is King Abdullah's grandson, is homosexual. The details of the case make this plain — something called the Spartacus International Gay Guide was found in his room, and two male escort agencies testified he had used their services since checking in to the hotel.

It is not as though homosexuality is unknown in Saudi Arabia. In a daring piece for the NS in 2007, Harry Nicolaides wrote of one attempted pick-up he experienced. (So daring was the piece, in fact, that at the time I couldn't believe his lack of regard for his own safety. My worries proved well founded, as Harry's bravery, or recklessness, was later to land him in jail in Thailand for violating lèse majesté laws.) And Robert Lacey devoted a section of his recent book Inside the Kingdom to an account of the prevalence of lesbianism in Saudi — a chapter to which some reviewers paid rather overenthusiastic attention.

But officially this "vice" is not tolerated, and sodomy is punishable by death. This is in line with a society that likes to insist on its version of the truth and airbrush awkward episodes from the official record. If you look up the country's second ruler, King Saud, for instance, on the kingdom's official government website you will not be told that he was an obese, lazy, spendthrift playboy who proved so incompetent that the almost unthinkable step of deposing him was taken in order to make way for his brother Faisal. No, you merely find a bland paragraph listing his "achievements" and dates on the throne.

The Saudi government, however, cannot control coverage of Prince Saud's trial. Surprise, surprise, if you try to look it up on the website of Arab News, a Saudi-owned English-language newspaper, the closest you get is a four-day-old story about Russia commending a different Prince Saud (the king's nephew) as a diplomat. But as this fascinating article in the Atlantic shows, internet restrictions are easily bypassed by the kingdom's citizens, not least by those logging on to gay dating sites.

Prince Saud's story will soon be known. Perhaps some of those reading it will shudder, and give thanks that nothing similar happened to them — after all, they may have met him online already . . .

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.