Govt criticised for half-mast flag tribute to King Abdullah

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz

The British government has controversially requested that all national flags be flown at half-mast today in honour of the Saudi King Abdullah who died last night.

Following the absolute monarch’s passing at the age of 90, a government statement read: “It is with great regret that we learn of the death of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, King of Saudi Arabia. It is requested that all flags be half-masted from 8am today until 8pm this evening.

“Any other UK national flags flown alongside the Union Flag when it is at half-mast should also be at half-mast. If a flag of a foreign nation is normally flown on the same stand as the Union Flag, it should be removed.

“Local authorities are not bound by this request but may wish to follow it for guidance. Devolved administrations are responsible for issuing instructions for the flying of the Union Flag on buildings in their estate and others as necessary.”

But the government decision to mark the death of King Abdullah by flying flags in Whitehall at half-mast was almost immediately criticised by MPs.

The Ukip MP Douglas Carswell said it was an “extraordinary misjudgment” in the light of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Carswell said the “Sir Humphreys who run British foreign policy” were to blame for the tribute and that they were out of touch with public feeling. It is an extraordinary misjudgment by the out-of-touch elite in Whitehall who think it is appropriate to do this,” he said.

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Labour MP Paul Flynn said the tribute was evidence of the establishment’s “extraordinary subservience” to foreign royals.

Western ally

The gesture is emblematic of the economic importance of Saudi Arabia, which is a close western ally.

Abdullah, who died on Thursday after being admitted to hospital with pneumonia, was one of the world’s richest and most influential people. He has been succeeded by half-brother Salman, formerly governor of Riyadh.

The king was seen by many of his supporters as a gentle reformer, and was credited with trying to balance traditions with modernity.

Saudi Arabia and the US are close allies
Saudi Arabia and the US are close allies

He pushed through limited women’s rights, and in 2011 decreed that women should be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections. However, he did not permit women to drive.

Despite this slow-moving reform, King Abdullah’s reign oversaw a great deal of human rights controversies.

Human Rights Watch says: “Saudi Arabia has stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens. Authorities continued to violate the rights of Saudi women and girls and foreign workers.

“Authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. Courts convicted human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.”

Arab Spring

In the face of Arab Spring revolts happening in nearby Bahrain and Egypt, King Abdullah reacted swiftly, playing a key role in supporting leaders of friendly states.

He played a lead role in supporting Egypt’s government in 2012, and also against the revolts that attempted to bring down Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
In general, his foreign policy could be summarised as attempting to stem the influence of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new king Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia
The new king Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, also declared that Islam forbade street protests. Citizens who ignored the decree were arrested – dozens of protesters were taken into custody in the mainly Shia east of Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah also brought in loosely defined laws against things such as national security, which were punished with heavy fines.King Abdullah was said to enjoy a “genuine and warm friendship” with Barack Obama, and was described as the most pro-Western Arab leader yet.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of his death.

“He will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths,” Cameron said in a statement on Thursday. “I sincerely hope that the long and deep ties between our two Kingdoms will continue and that we can continue to work together to strengthen peace and prosperity in the world.”

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