7 SEPTEMBER 2002, Page 14


The Saudi ambassador tells Boris Johnson

that America is hated and war on Iraq is mad

'NO, no,' says the Saudi ambassador. 'this is how you do it. You cannot lift your arm above the shoulder, and you must do it sideways.' He moves alongside, a big man with a faint resemblance to Leon Brittan. and makes a thwacking motion. Meet Ghazi Algosaibi, 62, a poet and author, the Arab world's leading envoy to London, who has recently earned not just a personal rebuke from Jack Straw, but the demands of the Jewish Board of Deputies that he be expelled from the country.

Mr Algosaibi recently wrote an ode to a suicide bomber (which prompted the rebuke). In the last two hours, in the lacquered mudejar comfort of his Curzon Street embassy, he has been fluently denouncing the West. He has attacked cultural imperialism, bashed Bush, hammered Sharon, and now, as a coda to a virtuoso performance, he is giving a short tutorial in the virtues of lashing.

'What would you rather have? Thirty lashes or three years in prison?' he demands, swishing away. On the anniversary of 11 September, and with a new war impending, it seemed useful to hear the opinions of our most valued and vital Arab ally.

What will he be doing on Wednesday the 11th? Will the flag be lowered? Um, he says, they have this thing about lowering the flag. It has the name of God on it. It seems the embassy has no real plans to mark the anniversary, which is perhaps not surprising, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Why was that, by the way?

'The answer is easy,' he says. 'It was much easier to get a visa for a Saudi.' But let's face it, Ghazi (as he asks me to call him), bin Laden has Saudi support, doesn't he? 'Please don't kick the ambassador out of London for saying this, but if you go around the Muslim world, you will find the vast majority of people will support Osama bin Laden, and this is more tragic than the attack itself. Why would such a crime like this find such support, not just on the streets of Riyadh, but on the streets of Turkey, the streets of Tunis, the streets of Britain?'

But why is he so strongly supported?

'That comes to the question of why people hate America. And people definitely do hate America, because she is the superpow

er. All countries have different reasons, but in the Muslim world there is one issue with America, and that is Israel.'

Look. I say, I just don't believe that 15 Saudis are going to take their own lives in that way, purely because of Palestine. He plays ferociously with his amber worry beads. 'You have to be an Arab to understand the Palestinian cause, just as you have to be Jewish to understand the Holocaust. The impact that the Palestinian problem left on the Arab is something that is beyond the understanding of anyone who is not an Arab. It really ignited memories of the Crusades.'

But come off it, surely the problem of Palestine has been largely caused by abominable Palestinian leadership. 'If you want me to tell you that Yasser Arafat is the worst leader in history, I have no problem with that.' Then why does the Ambassador to the Court of St James make the odious analogy that Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is 'far more severe than anything the Germans did'?

Ghazi says that he is the victim of a 'dirty trick' of misquotation. He never meant to connote the Holocaust; he was merely referring to other aspects of Nazi rule — curfews and suchlike. And anyway, he says, 'Sharon is much worse than llamas. He has more lethal rockets and he is killing more civilians.' He produces a sheet of figures. 'There have been 2,283 Palestinians killed between 28 September 2000 and 19 June 2002. Did Hamas do that? We are talking about the killing of civilians. That is what terrorism is. Why, when it is done ruthlessly and efficiently by a state, is it not called terrorism?'

Surely Israel's answer, I say, is that there is no moral equivalence between the intentions of a terrorist, and the authorities who are trying to pre-empt the suicide bombers . . . 'I don't see the moral equivalence,' he interjects, 'because what Sharon does is much worse. Have you been brainwashed? Have you been intimidated by Lord and Lady Black? Sharon engineered the intifada and the repression. These are people who have been living all their lives in misery.

'When I was a little boy in Bahrain in 1948 [when he was eight], I was going on the street and demonstrating. I didn't say down

with America. I said down with Britain, because Britain gave Palestine to the Jews and it didn't belong to them.'

And that, he says, remains the problem. I wonder. Doesn't bin Laden also loathe the corrupt and despotic Saudi monarchy, the 4,000 princes, the hypocrisy? 'No, no, that's just what you guys write. Bin Laden is going to do this no matter what. He's a maniac. We rescinded his nationality in 1994, and the human-rights organisations were up in arms. We always warned you against him, and we made sure no money went to him because we realised he was a danger.'

What about the $200 million the Saudis allegedly gave him, as a bribe to take his operations off home soil? 'We didn't give him a penny. He went to his family and said, give me my share, and he was given his share of his father's inheritance. You could not take that away from him at that time, so he took away $50 or S60 million, yes.' So you are telling us that bin Laden's grudge against the world is all about Israel, and nothing to do with the Saudi regime? Would these demented suicide bombers really have been produced by a democracy?

'Democracy is a Western phenomenon,' he explodes. 'If you look now and say 142 governments in the world have elections, that's a disgusting lie. If you exclude the West, there are no democracies.

Well, hang on, I say. 'Tell me, tell me!'

What about parts of Africa? 'But these countries have Anglo-Saxon elites. You take countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They have been isolated from the world. There is instant coffee, instant tea, instant wine, but there is no instant democracy. Democracy requires many things. It requires a middle class, civil society, judicial process. I mean, come on, now. Churchill was ordering the troops to fire on the suffragettes in 1917.

'I think we should work towards a system where people run their own affairs, but you cannot impose it from the outside. Look at what is happening in Afghanistan. The famous committees on Evil are back, and yesterday there was a ruling against female singers on TV. In Saudi Arabia, or in any tribal system, if a girl marries outside the tribe there is war.

'In Saudi Arabia, a lot of people refuse to mention the name of their daughter. Some friends of mine wrote to me to invite me to attend the wedding of All and "our daughter". I wrote back, saying, "Does your daughter have a name?" When women were forced to have a picture on their passport, more than 20,000 of them handed back their passport. When I was a minister, I suggested that women should be allowed to drive. It was the women who protested.

If someone thinks the proper punishment of a murderer is execution, why should you or I interfere? We are not talking about a couple of banana republics, with all respect. We are talking about 1.3 or 1.4 billion Muslims. Are you or I going to convert them? If you had a democracy in Britain, you would have the death penalty tomorrow, especially

after the death of those two girls. I have made a study of it,' he says, rootling around for another pamphlet.

'Nobody in Saudi Arabia wants a secular state. They believe in their religion.' Oh, by the way, what is the position on alcohol, here in the embassy? 'I am not going to answer that question. I am not a Catholic and you are not my confessor, but who said Muslims do not commit sins? Has it not occurred to you that what goes on in this country is abhorrent to Muslims?' Yes, but remind me, what is it that Muslims find abhorrent? 'First of all there is great jealousy, of the financial and military power of the West, the gap between rich and poor. There is a common perception that the wealth of the West is the result of looting colonies.

`I have always said that this is not sustainable. I have always said you should not hate the Jews.' But now, he says, these feelings are ever stronger, and encouraged by American behaviour. 'I am worried because we are talking about a nation, a country, which is almost gripped by mass hysteria. This struck them where it hurt most. Even Pearl Harbor was nothing like this. Someone hit the Pentagon. They are just stunned, and looking left and right for revenge. Now we are getting these military courts in America, and holding people without trial. It is almost like what happened to the Japanese interned during the war. The American psyche is unlike the British psyche. You are in many ways more lackadaisical. You have two

prime ministers almost killed, and you say, Oh well, some things are fated, some are not. The Americans say, We are going to go and get them.

'And then most Muslims are looking at the Americans and saying, My God, are only the Muslims terrorists? What about Oklahoma? Or the Basques? Then the President says there are going to be actions against 60 countries. That is terrifying. What is the rational explanation for hitting Iraq? I don't understand it. Nobody understands it. I think Bush is obsessed with hitting Iraq, like Eden with Nasser, Eden was convinced that Nasser was another Hitler.'

But isn't Saddam like Hitler? 'No, no,' he laughs. 'Hitler was able to conquer 90 per cent of the civilised world as we know it. Saddam cannot do that. He is hemmed in.' Isn't his regime brutal? 'What is brutal? How many civilians did the Americans kill in Vietnam? Half a million? One million? Are you now avenging angels? Once you finish with the dictators, then you go to the regime which does not allow women to drive; and then to the people who cut off hands and the people who circumcise. What is this? The Lord of Hosts couldn't manage that! What are you going to achieve in Iraq?'

Change the regime, I say. 'Why? I think Sharon is a monster. Why don't they get rid of Sharon?'

Sc) Saudi Arabia will offer no help? 'Of course not, and I say that as a friend of America. because I believe it will backfire. I am sure America can do it, militarily. The Baghdad In, Baghdad Out option will work. Three or four weeks' bombing, and you get rid of Saddam, and then what? Are the Shias going to become suddenly buddy-buddy with the Sunnis? Are the Kurds going to forget their separatist tendencies? Are you going to inherit a safe seat in Basra South from Michael Heseltine?

'I don't know what is going to happen next, but I know that Dubya is going to hit Iraq, and it is going to end up a tragedy. I think Blair will do what he did in Afghanistan — a token participation that will not really offend anybody; more like moral support.' And no Saudi help whatever?

'As things stand now, no.' No use of bases? 'No. The feeling in the Middle East is so overboiling that I hate to think what is going to happen. We will do our best to keep the oil price steady. If it wasn't for Saudi Arabia, oil would probably be double its price now. Tomorrow if we cut our production by two million barrels, the price would go up to $35 a barrel.

'Everybody attacks Saudi Arabia, because it is the personification of everything a Western journalist hates.' As he is speaking, there is a ping on the embassy loudspeaker, and a muezzin starts summoning the faithful. 'It is privileged, Muslim, reactionary, and it suppresses women. Whatever I do, I don't like to bullshit anyone, because I don't like to be bullshitted myself. I am becoming like President Bush. I am becoming paranoid.'