Saudi king basks in praise at UN interfaith forum
The price of oil may have dropped by more than half in recent weeks but the Saudi petrodollar appears to have lost none of its allure, judging by the procession of very important visitors to the New York Palace Hotel this week and to the U.N. General Assembly. With President George W. Bush in the lead, they have all come to present their compliments to King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, who has turned the Manhattan hotel and the world body into an extension of his court, complete, it would seem, with a Majlis to receive petitioners.
Naturally, all the VIPs visiting him are eager to congratulate his majesty on his interfaith initiative, a gathering of religious and political leaders which took place this week under the auspices of the United Nations. The meeting has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, and Shimon Peres, the veteran Israeli president.
It is a fact that the king’s initiative is unprecedented and bold, taking place despite the displeasure of many influential religious clerics at home. It is also a fact that he is the first Saudi leader to have travelled to the Vatican, opening dialogue between the two largest religions.
But some commentators have pointed out the oddity that the king, who at home shares power with clerics of the puritanical Wahhabi Islam — which forbids any expression of other religious belief inside the kingdom, even of less austere forms of Muslim belief — should be so keen on interfaith dialogue abroad. Even Mr Blair admits coyly, in a newspaper article to coincide with the conference, that the king is also “the leader of a nation that critics say has been slow to modernise, with fraught consequences for the rest of the world”.
Critics also point out that the 15 Saudi hijackers who were among the 19 young Arab men who carried out the Sept 11, 2001 attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the United States were partly influenced by the Wahhabi ideology.
But amid the financial turmoil sweeping international markets, the galaxy of world leaders chose to set aside their misgivings about Saudi Arabia’s domestic policies and freedom record. In their sight, they had one goal:
They are hoping Saudis will stump up cash to help the International Monetary Fund bail out emerging and developed countries in crisis.
Diplomats at the United Nations uncomfortably (and privately) acknowledge that Saudi Arabia’s wealth and its growing importance as a major contributor to the U.N. aid programmes — it recently gave $500 million to the World Food Programme — were behind the high turnout at the forum and lack of criticism of Saudi domestic policies.