Sunday, 24 February 2008

Spinning and Flogging

Ever since the notorious case of the rape victim sentenced to being flogged for being in the wrong car - known as the Qatif girl - Saudi Arabia has been a happy hunting-ground for news organisations in search of an easy snigger. Or, to put it more politely, a pithy illustration of the cultural gulf that separates that "conservative" Islamic country from the decadent west. In recent weeks there has been the female executive - who happened to possess American nationality - arrested for using a laptop in a Riyadh branch of Starbucks where men were present, the ban on Valentines Day roses (aimed at suppressing a "pagan Christian festival") and, rather more seriously, the case of a woman sentenced to death by beheading for witchcraft.

Yesterday's "only in Saudi" tale concerned 57 teenage boys arrested by religious police in a shopping mall for "wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing in order to attract the attention of girls". It's a situation that oddly recalls the plot of The Mikado, the action of which is set in motion by an imagined anti-flirting campaign in a fictional Japan:

Our great Mikado
Virtuous man
When he to rule our land began
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.

So he decreed in words succinct
That all who flirted, leered, or winked
Unless connubially linked
Should forthwith be beheaded.

Although it's likely that these youths will get off rather more lightly. With a flogging, perhaps.

It appears, though, that the Saudis have begun to take notice of the puzzlement their unique style of justice creates in countries whose legal systems lack the salutary benefits of a firm religious foundation. And they are resolved to do something about it. The Ministry of Justice, it is reported, is planning to appoint a spin-doctor.

According to the Saudi Gazette (a must-read news source for anyone with an interest in extraterrestrial life-forms), "the Ministry is leaning towards appointing an official spokesperson to nip rumours and 'fabricated' news in the bud." The move came, said an anonymous source, partly as a result of the "upheaval" triggered by the Qatif case. "Openness to the media and delegation of powers are one of the administrative policies favored by the Minister of Justice Abdullah Bin Mohammad Aal Al-Sheikh," he added.

So it's all about "transparency", then: the last redoubt of the politically desperate. It's not that there's anything wrong with the way things are, it's just that we're not getting our message across effectively. It's hard to believe, though, that more information about Saudi justice will combat its negative image in the wider world. As Bagehot said in a rather different context, it doesn't do to let daylight in on magic.