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Nation & World 11/5/01

The kingdom and the power

Saudi Arabia suddenly finds that its cozy relationship with Washington is in trouble


The window on a shiny Chevy Suburban rolls down, and the young driver shouts out a name to bystanders: "Osama bin Laden!" This is not a scene from some seething Mideast slum or a dusty terrorist redoubt in Afghanistan but rather from modern Riyadh, capital of a country normally touted as America's most stalwart Arab friend, Saudi Arabia.

Such acts of drive-by dissent offer a warning about an increasingly shaky friendship. The United States has given Saudi Arabia protection, pushing Saddam Hussein's invaders out of neighboring Kuwait and discreetly leaving 5,000 troops in place as a security guarantee. The Saudis have served as America's top supplier of oil, a bulwark against radical regimes, a leading arms customer, and now as an ally in the war on terror.

But, paradoxically, the kingdom has also emerged as a leading source of Muslim extremism–and of its foot soldiers. Its participation in the antiterror campaign has been grudging. And it played a critical role in building up some of the very forces the United States is now committed to destroy. "This behavior cannot continue," declares Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden.

Now, more than at any time since the dark days of the 1970s oil crisis, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is on the line. Some in Congress, U.S. law enforcement, and elsewhere are asking: Just what kind of ally is this? Senior Saudi officials profess dismay at the question. "We are a true and trusted friend," says one. "The people who did this [attack] wanted to ruin the relationship."

Probably no Arab country has been so buffeted by the aftershocks of September 11 as Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the exiled CEO of terror, Osama bin Laden. Signs of Saudi dissent, long stifled, are now bubbling up. An influential sheik issued a menacing fatwa, or religious decree, branding the ruling family as infidels for helping the Americans. Other preachers concurred in a stunning challenge to ailing King Fahd and his faction-riven family.

Riyadh is in a bind, caught between Washington's demands and Islamist passions that have been inflamed by almost universal resentment of the United States for its support of Israel. The Saudi government has distanced itself from the U.S. war in Afghanistan and criticized civilian casualties–even as it covertly offers limited military cooperation and intelligence on bin Laden's al Qaeda network. "They've got to contain this populist feeling but at the same time reflect it," explains a former British diplomat familiar with royal thinking.

Blowback. The Saudi strategy of buying peace with Islamist zealots at home and abroad has, in effect, helped create a monster that seeks to devour its benefactors. The royals were slow to notice the gathering blowback from their intricate dealings. No longer. "There is recognition at the highest levels that bin Laden's immediate aim is the destabilization and ouster of the House of Saud," says the ex-diplomat.

The Bush administration is worried about Saudi stability–but also about ruffling the royals. National-security specialists have long contemplated scenarios for Saudi oil-field terrorism or an Iranian-style fundamentalist revolution. The proud Saudis are prickly about criticism. Again last week, President Bush took pains to express satisfaction with Saudi antiterror assistance. U.S. officials, mindful of the oil and security stakes, have been told to sound upbeat–and skirt details. Says one, "The Saudis move slowly. You can't walk in there like a bull in a china shop. . . . They want to get on the right side of this–within the constraints of Saudi society."

Perhaps, but U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents have been grumbling about incomplete Saudi help in the September 11 probe, particularly in verifying the identities of the hijackers and tracing their support networks. U.S. officials last week disclosed that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis; Riyadh disputes that number, but the deep involvement of Saudis is embarrassing. "The good name of Saudi Arabia has been tarnished by reports of Saudi citizens taking part in these attacks," concedes Abdulaziz al-Fayez, a foreign-policy specialist on the king's consultative council.

Nor have the Saudis announced any arrests of al Qaeda suspects. Yet the U.S. investigation indicates that some of the planning for the terror blitz took place in Saudi Arabia, a conclusion that is ultra-sensitive because it implies the kingdom is vulnerable. "The Saudis are not fully cooperating," a knowledgeable former counterterrorism official tells U.S. News. Such reluctance is not new. The Saudis stymied FBI investigators who sought to interrogate suspects in the 1995 and 1996 terrorist bombings that killed 24 Americans in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are acutely sensitive about any purported complicity of ruling-family members in funding terrorists, even if it is unwitting. They are also touchy about Washington fingering Islamic foundations as conduits for terrorist money because charity is an obligation of Muslim life. The Bush administration believes that wealthy Saudi individuals and foundations have funneled money, directly and indirectly, to al Qaeda, but Riyadh has yet to freeze any suspect assets. The Saudis have requested–and are receiving–technical training from Treasury Department experts in auditing money flows.

As they have since the Persian Gulf War, the Saudis put their military bases off limits for U.S. attacks on fellow Muslim countries. A senior Saudi official, though, says that Riyadh privately consented to the use of a modern command-and-control facility at the Prince Sultan Air Base to coordinate airstrikes.

Delicate diplomacy. Soliciting official Saudi help is always a delicate affair. The Saudis are invited to signal what military support they would be willing to give. Next, U.S. requests are formulated to ensure an affirmative response–and then not acknowledged publicly. "Saudi Arabia has agreed to every [U.S.] request," assures a senior Saudi official. "Does it matter what we are saying publicly?"

The secrecy and ambivalence characterizing the Saudi response flow from well-founded fears of instability. Despite official condemnations of the September 11 attacks, bin Laden's anti-American message has resonated in the kingdom, particularly his demand that U.S. forces leave the Muslim holy land. To Saudi Arabia's angry young men, bin Laden is a romantic figure, a rebel who was born to wealth but shunned privilege to live in a cave and wage a self-proclaimed jihad, or holy war. The young Saudis who yell bin Laden's name and who boycott American restaurants and stores may dislike many of the strictures he would impose, but they see him as pious and uncorrupt and sympathize with his hate-America rhetoric. Bin Laden has also exploited antipathy for the hereditary rulers, whom he calls corrupt and "hypocritical" for their personal conduct and links to American "infidels."

The roots of Saudi radicalism spread out from the monarchy itself. The 30,000-strong royal family bases its right to rule on promoting a puritanical form of Islam–as well as its unique guardianship over the faith's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. The ultraconservative Wahhabi strain of Islam sets an austere tone for public life: Religious police enforce morals, and schools drill students in Islamic thought tinged with an anti-Western outlook.

Jihad. Al-Saud funds are used to spread Islam–and to support liberation jihads in conflicts from Kosovo and the Palestinian territories to Kashmir and Chechnya. The Saudis, along with the United States, financed the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan. Thousands of Saudis, known as afghanis, fought in that war, with Saudi schools encouraging volunteers. The Saudis later bankrolled the Taliban militia that holds power in Kabul, severing relations only in September.

Some afghanis who returned to Saudi Arabia are believed to be working with al Qaeda. And hundreds, or even thousands, of radicals have reportedly left the kingdom in recent weeks, bound for Afghanistan to fight for bin Laden. "The signs are disturbing. Something big is taking place in Saudi Arabia," says Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic politics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "Saudi Arabia has committed some major blunders by trying to use and package Islam as a symbol of legitimacy."

Economic hardship has buttressed the call of militancy. Birthrates are high: About half of the 17 million Saudis are under 18 years old. And with volatile oil prices, per capita income has tanked from about $15,000 in the early 1980s to less than $7,000 today. Unemployment is roughly estimated at 15 percent, and Saudi colleges are churning out graduates poorly equipped for careers in business and technology. More than half of Saudi Ph.D.'s are in Islamic studies.

The aura of corruption has damaged the monarchy's standing as well. High-living royals in a time of austerity sow dissent, but in Saudi Arabia political frustration has few outlets. Tirades in the media and the mosques against the United States and Israel are permitted exceptions. The regime uses the tactic, analysts say, to vent anger that might otherwise be directed at those in power. That makes open cooperation with the United States all but impossible.

The style is classic Saudi, indirect and designed to forestall confrontation. "The Saudis have always wanted a quiet life, undisturbed. So what they do is buy people off, inside and outside the country," says a former Western envoy to Saudi Arabia. In the future, however, the quiet life might not be for sale at any price.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 29, 2001

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