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What is it about opposition leaders and Saudi Arabia? Jeremy Corbyn said recently that the Government should have “difficult conversations” with the kingdom about extremist funding. Perhaps he has been taking tips in private from David Cameron. For the latter, when Leader of the Opposition himself, actually had one: in 2008, he quizzed King Abdullah “about Saudi Arabia’s financial support for extremist literature that is available in British mosques”, and called on him “to curb the export of fundamentalist religious ideology in books and pamphlets that advocate the suppression of women’s rights, hatred for non-Muslims and the execution of lapsed Muslims.” Cameron was drawing for his information on a report from Policy Exchange.
Almost ten years later, we have a different Opposition leader, the same problem, and another think-tank report, this time round from the Henry Jackson Society. It is a bit on the short side, coming in at twelve pages. The facts in it were already in the public domain. And it comes to only one conclusion – namely, that ‘the Government should start to address this issue by launching an official and public inquiry”. But the think-tank, Cameron and Corbyn are all clearly right on the main point: Saudi oil money has projected a minority trend in Islam worldwide by pumping billions of dollars into it.
This site isn’t into self-blame or alternative history as a rule. But we can’t help wondering what would have happened had Britain not backed Ibn Saud in the early part of the last century. Another clan might have taken power in Arabia and not brought Wahabiism with it. The country would not now be known as “Saudi Arabia” at all, any more than this one is known as “Windsor Britain”. Islam’s most holy sites would not now be in the custody of a movement within the religion that treats everything outside it with antagonism. Sufi Muslims and others are prone to quote a saying of Mohammed about Najd, the region of the country from which Ibn Saud originated: “there will occur earthquakes, trials and tribulations and there will appear the horn of Satan”.
Be that as it may, we are stuck with the Saudis. The Henry Jackson report acknowleges that it is dipping a toe into troubled waters. The Government could slap down a ban on the funding of mosques from that country. But it would be difficult legally to identify a single country in this way. Such a move would not tackle private funding, or the diversification of state funds. It would not take out money from the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar – states also referred to in the report. There would be questions over state interference in religious institutions.
And then there is the horrible tangle of Britain’s commercial relationship with and security dependence on the Saudi state. Perhaps a way through is to target measures on states that restrict religious freedom. This is an approach which, as the think-tank suggests, the Government’s proposed Commission on Countering Extremism should take an interest in. In the meanwhile, it should publish the report on the role of overseas funding in driving extremism that it commissioned last year. If Ministers believe that the findings are too sensitive, it can always put out an edited version, as they did with a report into the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps we will have to wait for progress until the oil economy is superceded by technological change – though that would risk a Saudi collapse and unknowable consequences.