Dictators: Oil, torture and the west

Damian Quinn on Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia

In 2002, Jeremy Paxman asked Tony Blair how he could endorse a country that "bans political parties, bans trade unions and uses institutional torture?". Blair looked perplexed. "The country being . . . ?". "Saudi Arabia," replied Paxman - Blair had recently described it as "a friend of the civilised world".

Blair's squirming typifies western governments' double standards - they are happy to support a monarchical regime which stifles internal dissent and discriminates against citizens who refuse its extreme puritanical form of Wahhabi Sunni Islam. The country's vast oil reserves and large defence contracts are enough to keep western criticisms of its human-rights abuses to a minimum.

The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created in 1932 when King Abdul Aziz unified several Gulf states. Six years later, oil was found and the House of Saud and its mineral wealth have dominated the country ever since. Since 1945, in return for guaranteed supplies of affordable oil, the US has offered the Kingdom security and no questions asked about domestic repression. The events of 9/11 were a belated wake-up call: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the Kingdom was also the chief financial and ideological backer of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia is the 21st-century embodiment of Louis XIV's maxim: "'état c'est moi." The ruling Saud family controls most of the government ministries and diplomatic posts. As a sop to its critics abroad, local elections were held last spring, though only men were allowed to vote and those elected were only given consultative powers. Even its supporters cannot ignore the scale of political repression: Saudi Arabia scores the world's worst rating for political rights in a report compiled by Freedom House, an NGO sponsored by the US State Department.

Damian Quinn works for Radio 4's The World Tonight