Dutch send top diplomat to avert Saudi sanctions over anti-Islam stickers

AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) - The Netherlands will send a top diplomat to Saudi Arabia to prevent the country from imposing trade sanctions in protest at anti-Islamic stickers printed in the colours of the Saudi flag by a Dutch far-right politician, the foreign ministry said.

The Saudi authorities have not announced any sanctions on the Netherlands, one of the Gulf Arab kingdom's largest investors, but Saudi media reported this week that such measures had already taken effect, citing unnamed officials.

Dutch exports to Saudi Arabia are worth some 2 billion euros (S$3.43 billion) a year, according to the Dutch statistics office.

Mr Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-immigration Dutch Freedom Party, had stickers bearing slogans derogatory to Islam printed in December as part of his campaign material. A prominent far-right Eurosceptic who has attracted supporters as far afield as the United States, his party is leading in national opinion polls before European Parliament elections on Thursday.

"The Netherlands cannot be held responsible for the adolescent behaviour of a single parliamentarian," Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on Dutch broadcaster RTL. "We will do everything possible to keep the consequences for the Netherlands as limited as possible," he said.

The Dutch government was trying to get clarity about what kind of trade sanctions Saudi Arabia was planning, Mr Timmermans said.

Saudi government officials declined to comment on the record to Reuters.

A spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry told Reuters its director-general for political affairs would go to the Gulf Arab country in an attempt to smooth things over. "There are indications (of possible sanctions), and because these indications are worrying we are going to Riyadh to talk about what these imply and hopefully do not imply," she said.

Known for his virulent anti-Islam statements, Mr Wilders has lived under round-the-clock armed guard since receiving death threats in 2004. His stickers, which were green and white like the Saudi flag, included statements calling Islam "a lie".

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is among the world's most conservative Muslim countries and enforces a rigid interpretation of Islamic law, including strict gender segregation, modest dress and restrained public behaviour.

On Tuesday, Saudi news website www.sabq.org quoted an unnamed Saudi Foreign Ministry official as saying that the kingdom had "immediately begun enforcing a decision imposing trade sanctions on Dutch companies in response to the behaviour of the Dutch politician, Geert Wilders ... that was seen as an insult to Islam."

According to Sabq, the Saudi official said trade between the two countries was worth around 7 billion euros annually. "That is why the Netherlands is seeking solutions, and the kingdom did not issue its decision haphazardly but wants to reach a result that will lead to stopping these behaviours," the official was quoted as saying.

In addition to trade in oil and gas, the Netherlands exports a wide range of products and technology in the agriculture, machinery, chemical and petrochemical sectors in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Wilders, in reaction to possible trade measures by Saudi Arabia, said in a statement on Saturday that the Netherlands "should have boycotted that country a long time ago''.

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