Saudi murder verdict

Justice has been done. But will it only strengthen the Wahhabists’ hand?

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When the murder trial of Prince Saud Bin Abdulaziz Bin Nasir al-Saud began, I asked: "The killing or the homosexuality -- which seems worse to the folks back home?"

Now that the verdict is in – Prince Saud has been found guilty of killing his aide and male lover – not only is a long jail sentence here a prospect, but the answer to my question appears to be clear, too. Such is the risk that he might face execution for engaging in homosexual activity if he were to return to Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Office has already confirmed that he would be "entitled to apply for asylum" after he is released from prison.

"Under human rights laws, a prisoner cannot be deported to a country allowing the death penalty unless assurances have been made to prevent their execution," reports the Daily Mail today.

The papers here have covered this trial with an enthusiasm that might not have shown if there had not been a "gay angle" to the case. By contrast, in its report, the National, the leading English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, merely notes that defence lawyers "denied prosecution claims that the pair had a homosexual relationship" – and one suspects that the keen interest of conservative publications has not stemmed from any deep concern for the fate of gay men in the kingdom.

Nevertheless, the exposure of the difference between the puritan façade maintained by Saudi Arabia and the reality behind it – whether that be a matter of odious hypocrisy or of cruel repression of certain ways of life – could be useful. I say "could", because if the international coverage of this case merely strengthens the hands of the Wahhabists who say the kingdom's problem is that it is being dangerously open and not policing the morals of its inhabitants strictly enough, then that is not a welcome outcome at all.

The relative moderates in Saudi Arabia, such as Prince Saud's grandfather King Abdullah, may appear fiercely conservative to us. But it is they who stand the best chance of effecting change for the better, however small and incremental it may be. Do not forget that the late King Faisal, no liberal in our eyes, was assassinated by his nephew for overseeing reforms such as the introduction of television and education for women and girls.

It is the clerical establishment and the huge influence it wields that we should worry about in Saudi Arabia. Those who train their disapproval on the country's monarchy should consider whether they have the right target in their sights. For if there was a popular, democratic election in the kingdom, there is no doubt that it would be the clerics who would be victorious.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman