JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — Saudi Arabia's military chief approaches an interview like one of his beloved hunting falcons: He circles first, observing, letting tough questions about a troubled US-Saudi relationship run their course.
Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz - minister of defense and next in line for the throne after ailing King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah - admits that there are increasingly sharp differences with Washington.
Overshadowing them has been harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia's handling - or mishandling, as the US Justice Department claims - of the investigation into the blast that killed 19 American airmen at Khobar Towers last year.
But in a closed country that has been a staunch US ally for 50 years, public airing of such disputes is infrequent.
In an rare interview that provides uncommon insight into the Saudi view of the world, Prince Sultan chooses his moment of attack as carefully as a falcon swooping toward its prey. "There are very great mutual interests," he begins, raising his hands to emphasize and to reassure. "Any difference of view has no effect on the core [relationship]. Not at all."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will highlight Saudi Arabia's importance as a US ally next week when she will visit during her first trip to the Mideast.
Buffeted by questions that imply a weakening US-Saudi friendship, Prince Sultan goes through the interview point by point, by turns both smiling and stern, and explains the Saudi perspective. This has been the most permanent strategic alliance in the Mideast, and mutual trust, he contends, is "no doubt as strong as ever."
But Saudi actions since the Khobar Towers blast have raised questions, if not doubts, about Saudi dependability. The primary source of tension has been repeated American accusations that the Saudis have withheld critical information gleaned from their bomb probe. King Fahd had promised full cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but FBI Director Louis Freeh and US Attorney General Janet Reno in January publicly upbraided the Saudis.
Prince Sultan counters that the reports are little more than a storm in a teacup that has now been cleared up.
"I met with officials of the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House," he says of a high-profile February visit. "Not one of them claimed there was no cooperation. We are in full understanding.... Matters as sensitive as these must be secretly and quietly dealt with."
Saudi difficulties were compounded when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded a Kurdish "safe area" in northern Iraq a year ago. Riyadh did not permit the 5,000-strong US force here to retaliate from Saudi soil. Tomahawk cruise missiles and air strikes had to be launched instead from ships in the Persian Gulf and long-range bombers flown from Guam.
"There was a chance to launch those missiles from outside the Kingdom," says Prince Sultan. "And frankly, the aggressor and the aggressed were both Iraqi, so we felt it was difficult to intervene."
Could Saudi again reject American requests in the future, forcing American commanders to rely on the other 15,000 troops deployed around the Gulf? "We hope these events will not happen again," he says.
Yet another source of agitation were preliminary Saudi moves in January to upgrade its Air Force with American-made F-16 fighters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any sale would upset the "balance" in the Middle East.
Following the cue, Mr. Clinton declared that his decision would be based on America's "first commitment," which was ensuring the "qualitative edge" of Israeli military forces in the Mideast.
"We heard the same thing from President Bush and [former Israeli Premier] Yitzhak Rabin, but nevertheless we got the F-15," he says. "If we want to get the F-16 now from the US, we would be able to get it immediately." Clinton, he suggests, was "maybe trying to get something from Netanyahu for progress on the peace process. But Netanyahu, I believe, is like a son who is disloyal to his parents."
Prince Sultan's assuredness that Saudi is indispensable to America could be interpreted as arrogance in Washington. The US, he says, "is a friend who, whenever we need him, we find him."
But Israel and the US have also made clear that they don't want Saudi to replace its aging Chinese CSS-2 ballistic missiles, which, after Israel's arsenal, have the longest range in the region. "We are not asking for their approval," responds Prince Sultan, with a smile.
Saudi Arabia has, however, taken the lead in criticizing American "idleness" as the US-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process falters. It has made its presence at a November economic conference in Qatar, which is to include Israel, contingent on progress toward peace. Crown Prince Abdullah told Qatar it should stand up to "strong pressures" from Washington and call off the event.
Prince Sultan says that Saudi Arabia adheres to the "same principles of justice and equality" declared by the US. But the "decision of the American Congress that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, when everything was uncertain [about the peace process], feeds the things that go against peace."
Reports that tiny Qatar is beginning to play a greater role in US security plans - as a "safe" alternative if the Saudi "pillar" should begin to crack - are met with laughter. A year ago, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry called Qatar "the linchpin" of Gulf security.
"God willing, we hope they will share the burden!" chortles the prince, raising his hands in disbelief. "They have some ambition."
Criticism of Saudi Arabia - and any doubt about ties to the US - often stems from misreading the situation and not understanding the Saudi view, he adds. "There is a saying in the Koran: 'Do not perform the prayers while you are drunk,' " he notes. "But some people who have bad intentions only take the first part of the verse, and say: 'God said, do not perform prayers.' "