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Fretting Over the Saudis

By David Ignatius

Sunday, November 4, 2001; Page B07

LONDON -- For more than 20 years, I have been hearing oil executives and U.S. government officials worry about the internal stability of Saudi Arabia. Over that same time, I have heard Saudis complain that while America loved their oil, it didn't respect them or their traditions. They worried that open U.S. military support was making them less secure, rather than more so.

These tensions finally exploded into public view after Sept. 11. The American side complained that the Saudis weren't helping track Osama bin Laden and his suicide bombers, 15 of whom turned out to be Saudis.

Riyadh, in turn, was apoplectic about a piece in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker that quoted National Security Agency intercepts of conversations among members of the royal family and speculated that the House of Saud was about to collapse.

The Saudis issued a rare public protest, denouncing "the vicious campaign being waged against the kingdom in the Western media." Things got so bad that President Bush telephoned Crown Prince Abdullah a week ago to say "that he is very pleased with the kingdom's contribution to the [war] efforts," according to a White House spokesman. "Press articles citing differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia are simply incorrect," the White House said.

This is a time for honesty about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, rather than more squabbling, and several basic points are obvious: The first is that these are very different societies. The United States is an open, secular democracy; Saudi Arabia is a closed, Islamic monarchy. The two nations don't have to like each other, but they do have to conduct business -- especially now, when they share a common enemy in bin Laden.

Second, the Saudis are going to have to solve their internal security problems for themselves. That's probably for the best. Riyadh is likely to do a better job of it than Washington.

Finally, America should recognize that a leadership transition has taken place in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Abdullah has effectively succeeded his ailing half-brother, King Fahd. And although his policies may be less pro-American, they may lead to greater stability, which is in America's interest.

Fahd believed that Saudi security could be achieved through large purchases of U.S. and European weapons and through a covert security relationship with the United States. His wing of the royal family -- known as the "Sudairis," after their mother -- included the defense minister, Prince Sultan, and his flamboyant son, Bandar, who has served since the early 1980s as ambassador to Washington.

Abdullah, who ran the Saudi National Guard, has been less interested in purchasing expensive U.S. weapons (which has led some to view him as anti-American) and more focused on internal threats to the royal family's leadership. In particular, Abdullah has been an opponent of the corruption that many Saudis associate with Fahd's wing of the family.

"Abdullah's fundamental strategy since the mid-90s has been to shift the focus from external invasion threats to internal threats such as religious and political instability. In the process, he began to distance himself from the United States," according to J. Robinson West, chairman of the Petroleum Finance Co. in Washington.

Just as the Saudis must be realistic about their interests, so should the United States. Because of potential threats to Saudi production, the oil industry will look for new supplies -- from places such as Russia, the Caspian Sea and West Africa. These changing dynamics of the oil business were obvious last week at an annual "Oil and Money" conference sponsored by the International Herald Tribune. Delegates openly discussed the dangers of political instability in Saudi Arabia, the new strains in its relationship with the United States, the search for alternative sources of supply and the potential new opportunities for non-American companies to join the Aramco "club" of producers.

I first heard Americans express anguish over Saudi stability in 1981. At that time, executives of some of the major international oil companies were worried that the kingdom's system of commission payments was spreading into the oil sector, which until then had been relatively clean.

The fear of Saudi instability has been nearly constant over the succeeding 20 years. The U.S. response, other than hand-wringing, has been to let the House of Saud muddle through with its hedge-your-bets approach to policy -- funding CIA covert operations to make the Americans happy, even as it paid what amounted to protection money to radical Arab and Islamic groups.

Change will come to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Sept. 11, just as it has to America, but that shouldn't in itself be cause for alarm. Left to their own devices, the Saudis will probably deal quite ruthlessly with the Islamic terrorists within the kingdom.

The Saudis may appear timid and corrupt, but they aren't fools. If there's one thing the House of Saud has proven it understands over the past 50 years, it's the art of survival.

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Martin Thompson (, November 04, 2001

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