As it happened, there was no Saudi translator for the Ambassador's meeting with the Crown Prince and I was dragged into translation duties. Abdullah has a pronounced stutter, so Arabic to English was easy, but my own Arabic had deteriorated into a version of Sudanese kitchen Arabic and Abdullah, after a polite interval, said he was unable to get the gist of my version of Amb. West's words. Suddenly, Turki Faisal, then the head of Saudi intelligence, appeared and said, "That's okay, Dave, I'll handle it." Which he did.
The reason that I bring up these memories is that King Fahd, whom I attended several meetings with, would not have done the same [either with the translation goof-up or with mentioning the Brit intelligence oversight]. Fahd's English was actually quite good and on one occasion, he broke into a short English conversation with me, although I had the fly-on-the-wall demeanour befitting a low-ranking functionary. But Fahd was informal and invariably polite, except for one famous meeting with Amb. Hume Horan in 1988. Back then, Abdullah was less self-confident and more formal.
King Abdullah is straightforward and, on occasion, clumsy. The main reason for his chiding of the Brit intelligence on the London bombings is probably the fact that the Brits allow prominent Saudi dissidents to publish and be interviewed on TV and radio without restrictions. The British value political freedom of speech above flawless relations with a country which can give them rich contracts. Also, there are several incidents of Brits behaving badly in recent [and even long ago] bilateral relations. And the Saudis as well have not allowed Brits imprisoned for accused crimes very much support or legal leeway. As when I served in the Kingdom, human rights and corruption remain front and center in bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia:
Vince Cable, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in Britain, said he would boycott a banquet held by Queen Elizabeth II in honour of the Saudi king, citing Riyadh’s “absolutely appalling” human rights record.
Campaigners demanding a revival of the SFO inquiry, meanwhile, will demonstrate on Tuesday as the king rides towards Buckingham Palace.
Riyadh was said to have put pressure for an end to the investigation by threatening to withdraw security co-operation and terrorism and intelligence sharing. The abandonment of the investigation paved the way for Saudi Arabia’s agreement to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes, part of a contract that could reach £20bn ($41bn, €29bn) in value.
The Saudis’ attitude is that the investigation is an internal British issue and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the national security adviser who has denied accusations that he benefited from the arms deal, is one of the senior officials in the king’s delegation.
“What happened 20 years ago is a British issue. Our aim is to look at the future,” Prince Mohammed, the Saudi ambassador, told reporters.
Although I never met Mohammed, his father Nawwaf lived just down the street from my residence in Jeddah and my Sudanese houseboy would keep me apprised of the Senior Prince's journeys and sojourns [Nawwaf was influential in the Royal Court on matters dealing with the Emirates and the Arabian [Persian] Gulf.
And knowing Bandar, who would not have dared fiddle with US contracts, the Brit Tornado contract may have been just too enticing to allow to pass without a bit of skimming.