Camilla covers up: Demure Duchess of Cornwall wears headscarf for visit to Saudi Arabia with Prince Charles as row rages over execution of seven prisoners
Dressed in a flowing turquoise headscarf, the Duchess of Cornwall arrived with her husband in Saudi Arabia today.
As a member of the British royal family, Camilla is not required to wear an abaya, the traditional voluminous black gown women in the hardline Islamic state are forced sport in public, but still dressed demurely as a mark of respect.
Prince Charles and his wife were met by the Governor of Riyadh, His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud, who escorted them past an honour guard before offering them a cup of traditional cardamon coffee.
The couple are in Saudi Arabia on the third leg of their nine-day Middle East tour on behalf of the British Government.
Their presence is designed to strengthen ties between the two countries, focusing on bilateral military links and issues such as education, faith and commercial partnerships.
Yet it also comes at a time when the country’s human rights record is, once again, being called into question following the execution on Wednesday of seven prisoners convicted of armed robbery.
The men died at the hands of a ‘humane’ firing squad as the country is, according to reports, struggling to find enough executioners for traditional beheadings.
Two of the group were said to have been juveniles when they were charged with being part of a gang of thieves in the Saudi town of Abha. All were detained for more than three years, subjected to torture and denied legal representation in court.
One of the men was also due to be crucified after his death, with his body tied to a pole in a public square to act as a deterrent to others.
FCO Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt, who is in the country to greet the prince, expressed his deep concern about the deaths earlier this week, saying: ‘The death penalty is a human rights priority for the UK.
Feeling the heat: The Prince donned a hat to shade himself from the sun while his wife was draped in a headscarf. Human rights campaigners have urged Charles to raise the issue of the death penalty
‘As I have said previously, the UK opposes as a matter of principle all use of the death penalty, whatever the crime committed.
‘We registered our concern at reports of the planned executions in this case with the Saudi Arabian embassy…..reiterating our opposition to the death penalty and requesting that leniency be shown, but to no avail.
‘The alleged circumstances surrounding the executions cause enormous damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation internationally and we will press the Saudi authorities once again to reconsider their application of the death penalty.’
Saudi Arabia is one of five states in the world to conduct public executions and has the widest number of crimes punishable by death, including murder, rape, sodomy, robbery, theft (after four offences), false prophecy and witchcraft.
According to Amnesty International UK at least 17 people, including eight foreign nationals, have already been executed in Saudi Arabia this year.
These include including Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek, who was accused of killing a baby in her care when she was just 17 but claimed to have confessed under duress.
Human rights groups have accused Charles of shirking his responsibilities in failing to raise the issue of the death penalty with the ruling Saudi royal family, with whom he enjoys a close friendship.
‘Prince Charles has always had the tip of his well-polished brogues in the political world and he should use his influence to tell the royal House of Saud a few home truths about the country’s dreadful human rights record,’ said Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK Director.
‘Surely, arriving in the wake of controversial executions and the jailing of human rights activists Charles will want to at least broach these matters?’
Although Clarence House have declined to comment publicly, well-placed diplomatic sources have told the Mail that issue may be raised in talks between Charles and the country’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel Aziz tonight, albeit obliquely.
‘The reason why the government is keen for the prince to come here is that he enjoys a very different relationship with the Saudi Royal Family to that of the government. He can get things done in a way the politician frankly can’t,’ they said.’
‘In my experience there is no subject off limits and it is likely that the prince will talk to him about the issue of the state of reform in the country.’
Freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia – or rather the lack of it – is also a matter of serious international concern, with protests banned and criticism of the state rarely tolerated.
Similarly, women have few rights in Saudi Arabia and are required, regardless of age, to have a male guardian – typically a father or husband – who must give their permission for everything from opening a bank account to marriage.
They cannot vote or be elected to high office and are prohibited from driving. Indeed in 2011 a woman from Jeddah, where the royal couple will fly to on Saturday, was sentenced to ten lashes by whip after being caught behind the wheel.
Women are also required to be segregated from men in public: most offices, banks and universities have separate entrances and they are required to sit separately on public transport and in restaurants.
When it comes to dress, women are also expected to cover all parts of the body that are ‘awrah’ – not meant to be exposed.
Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam means they must cover their entire body with a black cloak known as an abaya and headcovering, or hijab, leaving just the eyes and the hands exposed.
Conventions for dress and behaviour are all fiercely enforced by the notorious religious police or mutawaeen, whose official title is the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
For the Duchess of Cornwall, women’s rights are high on her agenda during the three-day visit.
She plans to visit a number of establishments, including a women’s university and a female vocation training centre, to highlight some of the steps Saudi women are taking towards equality.
Tonight the Duchess will also enjoy the finest hospitality the country has to offer at a lavish women-only banquet thrown in her honour by HRH Princess Hessa Bint Trad Al Shaalan, the King’s second – and favourite – wife of four, who acts as his official consort.
Glammed up: The Duchess changed into a gold dress to attend a women-only banquet thrown in her honour this evening by HRH Princess Hessa Bint Trad Al Shaalan
The gathering will be held at the quaintly named The King’s Farm, which is actually a vast estate the size of London an hour’s drive out of Riyadh where the monarch likes to spend weekends.
Around 100 guests – including most senior woman in the Royal Family – will enjoy cultural performances such as sword dancing as they drink coffee before moving into dinner.
According to local custom, serving staff bring tray after tray of local delicacies until the principle guests ‘can eat no more’.
Charles will meanwhile attend a similar all-male banquet at another palace on the edge of the Diriyah wadi and its 18th Century ruins.
The country’s ruler, King Abdullah, 89, will not be present at the dinner as he is recovering from back surgery.