First acts hint at the iron fist beneath the velvet glove

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia marked the first week of his rule with a typically warm-hearted gesture on 8 August, when he pardoned five political activists opposed to his regime. Riyadh, usually something of a ghost town in mid-August, has been a hive of diplomatic activity since the death of Fahd bin Abdelaziz, as the new king has reaffirmed ties with his neighbours and key Western allies and taken the opportunity to mend some fences.

The five pardoned activists include three reformists jailed for seeking a constitutional monarchy, their lawyer and a militant Islamist. Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh were jailed for ‘stirring up sedition and disobeying a ruler’, in a case that severely tested relations with Washington and,the patience of then-Crown Prince Abdullah, who had reportedly expressed some sympathy with their cause. Their lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem was detained after criticising judicial practices in the kingdom during his clients’ trial. Separately, Islamist and former professor Saeed bin Zueir was arrested for allegedly supporting violent terrorist acts.

Abdullah also pardoned a group of Libyans accused of attempting to assassinate him. The move is seen as an attempt to mend ties with Tripoli. But the regime has struck a particularly assertive note on other areas of foreign and domestic policy, vowing not only to continue clamping down on extremists, but also pointing out some of the shortcomings of more powerful nations. Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK, has taken the British government to task for failing to take action against Muslim extremists. In an article published in The Times newspaper on 10 August, Prince Turki said that he had been ‘going around in circles’ in his efforts to make Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government aware of the dangers posed by militant Islamists in the UK. He said he had approached various government departments but none would take responsibility for addressing his concerns. ‘We have been in this run-around for the last two and a half years,’ Prince Turki said.

Riyadh is seeking the return of two Saudi Islamists, Saad Faqih and Mohammed al-Massari. The UN placed Faqih on its terror list in 2004. Their extradition ‘was one of the most persistent and consistent topics’ during his term in London, Prince Turki said. The prince will leave London in the autumn to take up a new post as ambassador to Washington, replacing Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

The kingdom has remained on a high state of alert since the succession, and authorities increased security around foreign compounds in Saudi Arabia on 9 August following warnings from the US, UK and Australia of imminent terrorist attacks. Officers imposed heightened security measures at foreign residential and diplomatic areas and set up checkpoints to monitor access to the diplomatic neighbourhood of Hay al-Wahidain. Police have also erected cement blocks and barbed wire around the Cordoba compound north of Riyadh. The neighbourhood was the target of a bombing in May 2003. Washington temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in the kingdom on 7 August because of intelligence reports of a possible terrorist attack. Oil prices rocketed to $64 a barrel in response to the security alerts.