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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 17:52 GMT
Tricky task of interviewing Saudi king
By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia speaking to the BBC
Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz became king of Saudi Arabia in 2005

Interviewing the leader of a country for TV is rarely easy.

Some try to get you to tell them the questions in advance. Others insist that you must leave your equipment with them for 24 hours beforehand, or search you rigorously.

When you saw Saddam Hussein you had to wash your hands in a special solution first, in case you might infect him.

But when I went to interview King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah, a couple of days before his state visit to Britain, we did not even have to put our gear through an X-ray machine nor go through a metal detector.

I thought it was going to be easy.

King Abdullah's palace is tasteful, modern and charming. The white marble is cool and pleasant after the heat outside. The offices are wood-panelled, and there are some attractive paintings.

Off-limits

I was just running through my questions in my head when the difficult part began.

A few minutes before we thought the interview was going to begin, someone came to speak to us.

I have not spoken about some subjects because I did not want either to be dishonest or evasive with you
King Abdullah

The king would not, it seemed, be prepared to talk about Iraq, or the possibility that the Americans might bomb Iran.

Nor would he speak about the BAE arms contract between the UK and Saudi Arabia, with its attendant allegations of corrupt payments.

The Saudis knew I wanted to talk about these subjects because although I had refused to hand over the questions in advance, I thought it was not unreasonable to tell them the general areas I wanted to cover.

I have never been told so close to an interview that some of the main questions are off-limits.

And so I heard myself saying that, unfortunately, it looked as though we would not be having an interview after all.

Negotiations

But I did not quite walk out. That would have been rude, and the Saudis had treated us with kindness and courtesy.

Prince Saud al-Faisal
The minister said he would call the Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and ask him to give us an interview about the subjects the king did not want to speak about

Instead, we had a polite but firm argument. There were two ministers and an ambassador on the Saudi side, and I called in our producer, Oggy Boytchev, to back me up.

Cups of tea came in, and little sweets, and glasses of water. Two hours passed.

Then the minister who had been leading the discussion spoke to the other minister, and made a new suggestion.

He would, he said, call the Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and ask him to give us an interview about the subjects the king did not want to speak about.

I have interviewed Prince Saud before. In fact, he gave me one of the best exclusives I have had, shortly before the US-led invasion of Iraq, when he showed how bitterly opposed the Saudis were to it.

In his quiet way, Prince Saud can be ferocious.

Frank

Something else had become clear to me by now. The king was not refusing to talk about Iran and Iraq because he was not interested in them.

On the contrary, I now realised he felt so strongly about what the US had done in Iraq, and the thought that they might soon bomb Iran, that he felt he might upset his relations with Washington if he spoke openly to me.

King Abdullah meets Queen Elizabeth II in London
King Abdullah is currently visiting the UK for the first time in 20 years

So I agreed.

Within five minutes of agreeing to the deal, I was sitting opposite the king. He was shrewd and pleasant and surprisingly frank, and at 82 still as sharp-minded as ever.

He said enough things to me about terrorism and the failure of other countries, including the UK, to act against terrorist activities, to get headlines around the world.

At the end, he said he wanted to say something personally to me.

"I have not spoken about some subjects," he said, "because I did not want either to be dishonest or evasive with you."

Maybe he wanted to demonstrate how independent-minded Saudi Arabia has become during his rule.

But it was certainly one of the most complicated and interesting interviews I have ever done.



SEE ALSO
Who's who: Senior Saudis
30 Oct 07 |  Middle East
Saudi visit to seal ties with UK
28 Oct 07 |  Middle East
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
11 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Saudis buy Eurofighters from UK
17 Sep 07 |  Business

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