THERE WAS undisguised delight on Friday when five Britons and a British-born Canadian were suddenly released from prison in Saudi Arabia and flown home. Two had faced beheading; the others long sentences, for their alleged involvement in bombings.
British officials claimed the releases were a result of their discreet diplomacy. Relatives, lawyers and MPs who had supported the men insisted nothing would have been achieved without the public pressure they had exerted. The official Saudi view was that the country's judicial system had taken its rightful course, culminating in the granting of royal pardons by King Fahd. In fact, this was a classic diplomatic denouement in which there was credit aplenty to go around.
And among the key players was undoubtedly the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Court of St James's, HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Abdulaziz. The Prince's arrival in London early this year heralded the first flickers of optimism in those campaigning for the British prisoners. Five weeks ago, Prince Turki received relatives of the prisoners at the Saudi embassy in London, a meeting that sent a hopeful signal simply because it happened. Legal representatives for the men were told their petitions for clemency appeared to have been "positively received".
When the royal pardon was finalised on Friday, the men's defence lawyer attributed it to the "good consideration" of the Saudi government and efforts by the Saudi Foreign Minister and the British ambassador to Riyadh. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud, is Prince Turki's brother. They are sons of the former Saudi king Faisal. Prince Turki's proximity to power would have been a vital element, as may have been his previous job, as director of Saudi intelligence for 24 years.
In the cool and calm of the Saudi embassy in Mayfair last week, Prince Turki had made clear his country's image in Britain was high on his list of concerns. We were asked, without preface or warning: "Why does your paper treat all that Saudi Arabia does as either the work of the devil or the work of some nefarious forces?"
The case of the Britons, imprisoned on what were widely believed to be trumped-up bomb charges certainly contributed to Saudi Arabia's negative image here. The claims that they had been tortured to extract their "confessions" (which they retracted), the prison conditions, the secretive workings of Saudi justice, nothing about this case promoted admiration for Saudi Arabia. Add to this the closed world of the rulers and the status of women, and that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 were Saudi citizens, and the image problem is no mystery. But the release, more importantly for Saudi Arabia, also removes at a stroke the biggest obstacle to improved diplomatic relations between London and Riyadh.
Prince Turki insisted the jailings had not affected relations, and business ties, especially, were flourishing. That was doubtless true. On the British side, it was hard to celebrate this success in public as long as Britons pleading innocence languished in Saudi jails.
Saudi Arabia needs as many high-profile friends as it can get. The outcome of the war in Iraq, which it did not support, could have long-term repercussions for the stability of the kingdom. But the most immediate problem for Riyadh is the dire relationship with its former chief ally, the United States.
Prince Turki spent his late teens at at exclusive "prep" schools near the University of Princeton in New Jersey, and has a business degree from Georgetown University in Washington. With slightly accented, but perfect English, he breathes quiet confidence in his authority and social position
"The United States and Saudi have their problems, on both sides," he said. "From the US side, you've seen them expressed. From our point of view, the problems are in several categories …