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Gulf states, Saudi can withstand Tunisia effect

Gulf states, Saudi can withstand Tunisia effect

Gulf Arab oil wealth fuelled relative prosperity; Deposed president in Saudi, but kept away from public eye.

January 18, 2011 10:30 by


Saudi Arabia, whose stewardship of Islam’s holy sites gives it a particular role in the Muslim world, has previously hosted other ousted Muslim leaders, among them Uganda’s Idi Amin.

But diplomats say the decision to host a deposed Arab ruler in the shape of Ben Ali has been more sensitive, as it highlights the lack of democracy in the kingdom itself. Riyadh is keen to avoid any hint of political parallels with Tunisia.

Diplomats said some Saudi leaders appeared to hope to benefit from hosting him because it has demonstrated a Saudi diplomatic role in helping defuse an international crisis.

Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is close to key princes, said: “I myself was not happy about it and I’m sure most Saudis are not happy about it.

“We would not like our country to be the destination for dictators but again we are trapped by traditions.”

But Jeddah resident Ali Banawi disagreed: “Saudi takes in people who want refuge. He is an Arab and he once had a diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia. As far as we are concerned he can come and chill here.

“He did nothing to harm our country.”

Saudi Arabia, in a possible sign of the sensitivity over his presence, has shunted Ben Ali off from a Jeddah palace where he initially stayed to the distant provincial town of Abha near impoverished Yemen, far from the kingdom’s political centre.

“Here is an Arab autocrat who is forced from power. Where else is he going to go. Saudi Arabia has strategic interests in North Africa. The guy has to go somewhere so they will bring him in … in the spirit of brotherhood,” Karasik said.

Dubai-based political analyst Mustafa Alani said the Saudis may have initially hesitated to take him but ultimately felt bound by tradition and did not want to exacerbate the situation in Tunisia. Should Ben Ali want to continue in politics, however, he will have to leave Saudi Arabia, Alani said.

“So it is not a political asylum. It is a humanitarian asylum. So they have no right to practice politics, no right to leave the country without permission, no right to meet anybody,” said Alani, who is close to Saudi thinking, on Saudi Arabia’s traditional conditions for granting refuge.

Several analysts said religiously strict Saudi Arabia was unlikely to feel a comfortable long-term home for the secular, French-educated Ben Ali, who may feel more at home in Europe.

But finding another country willing to host him could be a tricky proposition, and Ben Ali could wind up stuck there, as few other nations may be willing to provide a welcome. “I don’t see Ben Ali has any future back in Tunisia. But, at the same time, would you like to take on somebody like this when probably there are many in Tunisia who would want to put pressure on Ben Ali to achieve justice in terms of what are perceived as the wrongful acts of his presidency?” said Shaikh.

“I think at this point in time, especially with the crisis unfolding, he’s probably more trouble than he is worth.”

(By Asma Alsharif and Cynthia Johnston. Additional reporting by Eman Goma in Kuwait, Erika Solomon and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Ulf Laessing in Riyadh, Writing by Cynthia Johnston, Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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