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.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.