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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”.