British, Saudis patch up rift over film but other differences loom

Although Britain and Saudi Arabia have ended their quarrel over the screening on British television of the film "Death of a Princess," some remnants of strain between the two nations apparently still exist.

Recent talks between Saudi King Khalid and British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington have helped to restore cordial relations between London and Riyadh on the surface, however.

Lord Carrington undertook a personal mission to Taif, the Saudi summer capital, for talks with the King. He made every effort to settle the differences that arose when the film portrayed the public execution of a Saudi princess for adultery.

(The film was shown in Britain earlier this year, causing a strong unfavorable reaction by the Saudis.)

The two countries now are to set up a "joint committee for cultural cooperation," hoping it can be used for avoiding future misunderstandings. But members of King Khalid's family are still in a suspicious frame of mind, and politics -- in the shape of a recent Saudi threat of jihad (holy struggle) against Israel -- has increased the possibility that Britain and Saudi Arabia will have to work hard to avoid mutual policy conflicts.

A lot was at stake in the British bid to end the quarrel. Before it arose, the two countries had an annual trade worth $:2 billion ($4.6 billion). When King Khalid expressed his displeasure over the film and ordered Britain's ambassador back to London, Saudi orders for British goods and know-how began drying up rapidly.

According to one estimate, orders worth $:250 million ($575 million) were lost in the immediate aftermath of the dispute.

Lord Carrington set about healing the breach with all his accustomed urbanity. In the spring, he made an explanatory statement to the King, expressing his regret at the decision to show the film.

Later, he sent a Foreign Office minister to Taif to point out that Britain was keen to put relations back on a friendly footing.

The British ambassador to Saudi Arabia received an invitation to resume his work -- a sign that the King's mood was thawing. But it took Lord Carrington's personal presence at the court of the King to put the seal on a return to normality.

The new joint committee will be assigned the task of trying to minimize quarrels, but some British analysts fear the Saudis may wish to use it as channel for putting pressure on Britain to prevent programs critical of Saudi Arabia from being screened.

Lord Carrington in Taif discovered that the Saudis also are taking a bitterly critical view of Israeli actions in the occupied territories, southern Lebanon, and Jerusalem.

They pointed out that jihad does not necessarily involve warlike actions. On the other hand, it could mean a decision to use the oil weapon against any state that in the Saudi view was adopting policies sympathetic toward Israel.

This means that Saudi Arabian relations with countries in Europe, including Britain, will depend on the attitude of their governments toward Israel.

As one commentator put it, the Saudis discreetly served notice on Lord Carrington that Britain would be expected to follow policies that take a sympathetic view of Saudi demands.

This means that Britain will have to tread warily in its dealings with the court of King Khalid, since it still depends heavily on oil from the Gulf.

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