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Exile, sweet exile

Does Saudi Arabia deserve thanks for taking in dictators such as Tunisia’s ousted president?

Having fled from the country he ruled for 23 years, ex-president Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali has landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the government has "welcomed" him "due to the current extraordinary circumstances" in Tunisia. He has had an entirely different reception from bloggers in the kingdom and the region, however, varying from calls for demonstrations outside Saudi embassies in Arab countries by those who want Ben Ali swiftly brought to justice to those noting that Jeddah has of late "been plagued by torrential rain, overflowing sewage, insects and now the Tunisian ex-president".

In some ways it is not the most obvious refuge for Ben Ali. He may have been a brother Arab leader, but he will be expected to take a very different attitude to the religion of which he is nominally a member in his new home. The Financial Times reports that "Saudi Islamists pointed to Mr Ben Ali's secular policies, which they said marginalised Islam. One said on his Twitter feed that the harshest punishment against Ben Ali, who banned 'the call for prayer, Quran and the veil is to be surrounded by veiled and munaqabat [face-covered] women and the sound of recital of Quran'."

However, after several other countries, including France, refused to take him in, Ben Ali may have had little choice. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information now warns that Saudi Arabia is fast becoming a "refuge for dictators", having granted entry to Uganda's Idi Amin and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif in the past.

Sharif's sojourn in the kingdom was brief. Amin, however, spent the last 23 years of his life in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah up until his death in 2003. The Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio visited him there in 1997 while researching his book Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators.

Orizio found Amin "unchanged" from the "Big Daddy" of the 1970s, talking just as he had ruled, "walking the thin rope that separates madness from political satire, the tragic from the comic". His daily routine included swimming at the Hilton's pool in the morning, followed by a massage at the Intercontinental and then lunch at another hotel. (In the early 1980s it also included dropping two of his daughters off at the international school where they were taught by my mother, who found being cheerily greeted by him of a morning a rather eerie experience.)

Orizio described Amin's villa as being "the average white building where the average Saudi millionaire lives . . . full of the sounds of domesticity: a baby crying, women chatting, food being prepared".

''I'm still on top of things, I'm still a man of influence,'' he told me, and to prove the point he started flicking the remote control of his satellite TV, going from a Congolese station to a Libyan one. ''I'm still following international affairs,'' he boasted, finally switching to CNN.

''Do you have any regrets, Mr President?'' I asked. And the man who killed at least 300,000 Ugandans, who had the Anglican bishop of Kampala assassinated and dumped on the side of a road, and who had several of his own ministers thrown to the crocodiles of Lake Victoria, placidly replied, with his trademark Big Smile: ''No, only nostalgia.'' I asked how he wanted to be remembered. Apparently recalling his boxing days, he replied, ''Just as a great athlete.''

Saudi Arabia's kings are not inclined to question the past actions of authoritarian rulers who are fellow Muslims. Amin had an easy life, with monthly stipend, cars, servants and home all provided, although he put it at risk once in 1989, when he travelled to Zaire on a false passport in the belief that he could return to power in Uganda. But after making a show of not letting him back into the kingdom, the Saudis did anyway. Apart from this, according to his son Jaffar Amin, "much to his credit, once he fell silent on the world stage . . . he refocused his energy into understanding further his own religion. His immense curiosity was infectious . . ."

It is doubtful that the former Tunisian leader will end up sharing Amin's "curiosity". He will be expected to keep out of politics while he is there, and neither does he have the ties that Amin had to Saudi royalty – to King Faisal, with whom he performed the Hajj in 1972, in particular.

AFP today quotes Riad Kahwaji of Dubai's Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis as pointing out: "It might be ironic for a person who fought the hijab to end up being given asylum in an Islamic state. His wife will have to live veiled under the law there." So although handing over tyrants to the courts is not the Saudi way, Ben Ali may not feel the country is a congenial place for an extended stay.

In this case, however, the desert kingdom's benevolence should be seen in the round, and not just as a manifestation of a shameful tolerance of leaders wanted for crimes against their own peoples. As AFP's report continues:

By taking him in, the Saudis wanted to "defuse" the tensions on the streets of Tunisia. It was certainly "not out of sympathy" for Ben Ali, said Mustafa Alani, research director at the Gulf Research Centre, a Dubai think tank. The Saudis had two options – either they "contribute to solving the problem by giving him refuge" or "let him stay in the country . . . (where) things would go from bad to worse", said the analyst.

So, far from rushing to criticise the country so many love to hate, Saudi Arabia may deserve Tunisia's thanks for helping its former dictator to decide on instant exile. At least 50 people have died in the riots and unrest so far. If Ben Ali had stayed to fight to maintain his rule for as long as he could, there would undoubtedly have been a far more bitter and bloody end.

The price of saving who knows how many lives may be letting an old tyrant off scot-free. No other country would provide him that get-out card. Perhaps we should be grateful that Saudi Arabia did.

Tags:Tunisia