THE lowest point during my stay in the early Nineties in ghastly Saudi Arabia was when - on what passed for a sightseeing trip - the driver suggested my companion and I might like to take in two public beheadings.
Like our driver, one of the condemned was Pakistani - one of the many casualties among the hundreds of thousands of foreigners from poor countries who do most of the actual work in the kingdom, and who are subject to a brutal Islamic law (flogging, limb-amputation and so on) and to persecution on religious grounds.
The driver was being helpful. He realised that Riyadh hadn't a lot to offer us. Except for the supermarket (which was full of families at 3am when I visited it), and on Thursday night, after the football match when gangs of young men drive around looking for action, it was a ghost town. Unable to visit the few open historic buildings because of my gender, we had looked at the barren and ugly desert, been driven around the exteriors of the enormous homes of the rich, and had spent a few minutes nervously exploring a couple of streets in what remained of the old city.
We didn't linger there. I was properly clad in a scarf, from which not a single provocative and illegal tendril escaped and, from neck to toe, in the compulsory black abaya, but my host and I were not related and were therefore guilty of the offence of khilwa - being alone with a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative.
We had agreed that if challenged by the mutaween - the morality police from the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - we would claim to be siblings. Yet, although he, as a diplomat, would have been spared had they found out the truth, it could have been extremely nasty for me. The previous year, for instance, the mutaween had arrested a Filipina maid eating in a restaurant with a female friend, a married couple and a male friend of the husband. She was given 25 days' imprisonment and 60 lashes. (She was lucky really. Some women have been beheaded for being raped.) Khilwa is a more serious crime and is more frequently enforced on women than men.
The mutaween have what sympathetic westerners, anxious to crawl to violent Islam, are now telling us is an admirable devotion to the tenets of their religion. It is only a couple of years since 14 girls burned to death in a school fire in Saudi Arabia because the mutaween would not allow men who were not relatives to save them.
To our driver's surprise we said we'd pass on the executions, even though he reassured us that there was a separate enclosure for ladies where I would be comfortable. Instead, we went out to lunch with Australians in the parallel universe of diplomats and expatriates, where conversation is largely about who is sleeping with whom, whose illegal alcohol is best and how to avoid being arrested and flogged. It was a relatively sober occasion, unlike the nightly parties in the various compounds, which graphically demonstrate that repression breeds excess: prosperous call girls and nightclub owners in London, who prosper from the extravagance of hundreds of thousands of Saudi and Kuwaiti men, should be extolling Islamic fundamentalism.
At my first party, given by a French diplomat, I innocently danced with an apparently cosmopolitan Arab, and came close to being raped. Having been in the country only a few hours, I hadn't yet grasped that most Saudi men think foreign women are whores.
The corollary is that they think their own women would go the same way if they were not imprisoned: domestic violence is rife and almost unchallenged. In keeping with the more progressive side of Islam, Saudi women have property rights, they have access to (segregated) education, although subjects such as law and engineering are barred, and they may run (segregated) businesses and work in some (segregated) offices. However, in the 12 years since I was there, their condition hasn't improved much.
Although King Abdullah is a bit of a moderniser by local standards, women still don't have the vote, they may not travel at home or abroad without the consent of a husband or male guardian, they may not drive and they must enter buses by a separate rear entrance and sit in designated sections. I would much rather have been a black South African under apartheid than a present-day Saudi woman. Not only did they have much more freedom, but the western world stood up for them: fearful of violence, these days it cringes to the oppressors of women and the murderers of free speech.
Can you imagine a President of Ireland visiting South Africa during apartheid and saying nothing about oppression and forced segregation being wrong? Or comparing her past slight disadvantages to an audience in which token, handpicked blacks were behind screens? Or justifying giving blacks more opportunities simply on economic and cultural grounds? Or commenting blithely that the "feisty, determined" blacks she met were delighted she had come to the country?
In her speech on 1916, our President implied that one justification for that violence was that it was "a formidably unequal country" where women had "no vote or voice". Did she tell King Abdullah, in their private chat, that the women of Saudi Arabia are entitled to become terrorists?
Our President is anxious that Muslims should not be offended, but in the last couple of weeks she has grievously offended unionists, as well as the many Irish citizens who think we should be standing up for the Danes and free speech, rather than caving into Islamo-fascist intimidation by saying we all "abhorred" the publication of the cartoons. She had been briefed, President McAleese said when challenged: "The European Union is exactly, on all fours, line for line, with the view that I expressed in Saudi Arabia."
"On all fours"?
You said it, Madam President. You said it.