Last year, a walker in the hills west of Guadalajara, Mexico came across a large hole that looked like the entrance to a railway tunnel. (The Mexican Guadalajara is named after the city in central Spain; the word is Arabic, meaning ‘valley of stones’.) He walked inside it a long way, noticing that every eleven metres there was a hole in the ceiling admitting sunlight. He had found a qanat.
Eleven people have gone on trial in Riyadh, accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul in October. The defendants have not been named, but they do not include Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally believed to have ordered the killing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the trial is ‘not sufficient’. According to an opposition report on Twitter, the prisoners are being difficult: some mutinous, some suicidal. One unpredictable consequence of the affair has been a radical change in the way all things Saudi are reported in the media, above all the mainstream US media.
Last November, the International Labour Organisation closed its case on a complaint about working conditions in Qatar. Reforms meant that some two million workers now enjoyed better protection. ‘Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf States,’ the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, ‘and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.’ In April, the ILO inaugurated its project office in Doha, its first in the Gulf, to support a programme on working conditions and labour rights in Qatar.
The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.
At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia.
Evelyn Waugh, who passed through Djibouti on his way to the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930, when it was still a French colony, said that no one voluntarily spends long there. But it’s the only major trading port on the 4000 miles of coastline between Port Sudan to the north and Mombasa to the south, as well as being strategically situated on the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the narrow entrance to the Red Sea and a choke point on one of the world’s major shipping routes. The coast of Yemen is just twenty miles away. Pirates based in Somalia attacked more than 150 ships in the Gulf of Aden in 2011, costing international trade over $6 billion; the threat has been reduced but large freighters were taken in March and April this year.
Qatar, unlike the other Gulf states, is tied to Saudi Arabia by its adherence to the form of Sunni Islam described by everyone else (but not themselves) as Wahhabism. The family of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, known as the Al ash-Shaikh, has been the partner of the House of Saud and guarantor of religious orthodoxy since the state was founded. The Qatari royal family, too, claims descent from bin Abd al-Wahhab. But it has declined to join the Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Shia crusade. Like Kuwait and Oman it has important shared interests with Iran and has kept the door open to diplomacy.
In the last month Theresa May has given striking evidence of a tilt towards Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel. On 29 December, her spokesman sharply criticised a major speech by John Kerry, who was signing off after years of labouring for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He had told some home truths about the Netanyahu government, describing the current coalition as the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements. Asked by the BBC whether he was surprised by May’s reaction, Kerry said: ‘What I expressed in the speech has been the policy of Great Britain for a long period of time … An honest answer is yes.’
When George Clooney and his friends got special leave to be photographed in front of Leonardo's Last Supper the Italian newspapers couldn't resist pointing out that the last man to have that privilege was Silvio Berlusconi. And when he said off-the-cuff in Berlin that it would be very nice if the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin brought to London 200 years ago were returned to Greece, Clooney didn't help his case by confirming his view to the press in London but calling them the 'Pantheon' marbles.
According to the UN watchdog, Paulo Pinheiro, speaking in the General Assembly on 29 July, Syria is in free fall: 100,000 dead; refugees and displaced persons in the millions; atrocities of every kind; no end to the fighting in sight. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have been under pressure to ‘do something’, and most media attention has focused on arming the rebels – as if they were short of arms. Both leaders were initially tempted but seem to have come off the boil.