New snags in US-Saudi ties play to bin Laden

Somewhere in the dark recesses of an Afghan cave, Osama bin Laden may be grinning.

More than a month after the terror attacks in New York and Washington, international repercussions are shaking the very foundation of the house of Saud.

US relations with Saudi Arabia - the world's largest oil producer, beset with rising Islamic radicalism and US criticism for lack of cooperation against terrorism - are severely strained.

Mr. bin Laden himself might have written such a script to set the stage for a combined assault to topple the royal family of Saudi Arabia and end the US military presence in the Persian Gulf. But the tense relations between Washington and Riyadh are largely the fault of Americans and Saudis who seem, inexplicably, to be playing into bin Laden's grand scheme.

"If the terrorists were to read this stuff, they would like it," says Ibrahim Karawan, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. He says the terrorists must be thinking: "Not only did we inflict this heavy blow in Washington and New York, but we got those who were close friends to turn on each other."

With civilian casualties in Afghanistan mounting and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan fast approaching, the critical Muslim core of the US-led coalition against terrorism is growing increasingly alarmed about supporting what they see as open-ended carnage in a fellow-Islamic state.

Among those most concerned are bin Laden's No. 1 target, the king and ruling princes of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family has demonstrated its capacity to survive difficult and dangerous challenges, including a November 1979 attempt by armed Muslim extremists to overthrow the Al Saud family by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Rising opposition

But some analysts say the Saudis have never faced such concerted opposition from so many different quarters at once - including harsh criticism from US senators about Saudi reluctance to cooperate fully in the terrorism war. In addition, the royal family can't be sure about the activities of several thousand Saudis who presumably have been trained and primed by bin Laden for martyrdom missions.

"They are in uncharted territory," says a long-time Saudi political analyst who asked not to be identified by name. "They are operating in an environment where they don't have solid ground under their feet."

Though there has been a series of recent missteps, they need not be fatal to US-Saudi relations, says F. Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont. "The underlying common interests between the US and Saudi Arabia are still there, but there is a growing sentiment of mistrust on both sides."

In the most basic terms, the common interests boil down to US access to a steady flow of oil in exchange for guaranteed security for Saudi Arabia from external military threats.

There is a secondary American interest as well. Over the past decade, the Saudis have spent an estimated $170 billion for military equipment. And last summer the Saudis awarded contracts potentially worth $50 billion to upgrade the kingdom's gas production facilities. The vast majority of those sales and contracts went to US companies.

The royal family's interest in authorizing such huge contracts stems in part from the ability to receive huge commissions for setting up the deals, government critics charge. And it has prompted some Saudis to wonder why, after spending billions on defense, are American military personnel still needed in the kingdom?

Mr. Gause says the recent tension in the US-Saudi relationship stems from a "disconnect" between the two. "Here in the states, people get the impression that we did the Saudis a favor back in 1990 [winning the Gulf War], and that now they are not repaying us," he says. But the Saudis don't view 1990 as having been a favor - rather it was a reflection of US-Saudi common interests, he says. They don't have a sense of common interest in the current fight against terrorism, Gause says, adding, "They seem to have a tough time realizing how important what happened on Sept. 11 is to us."

One key concern raised by several analysts is whether recent criticisms from US officials and the American media signal a genuine desire by Washington to undermine or abandon the royal family.

"If we are deliberately trying to weaken the House of Saud - and that seems to be what we are trying to do - don't these people have any idea who is going to replace the royal family?" asks a US-based analyst with detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the kingdom. "If there is a revolution in Saudi Arabia - God forbid - it is not going to be Jeffersonian democrats or PhDs from Stanford who take over," he says. "It is going to be the Saudi version of the Taliban."

A former prime minister of Jordan, who asked not to be identified by name, also questions Washington's motives. "There is a general idea in the region that the United States does not stand by its friends," he says. "The British back their friends up to the end. But the Americans follow only their own interests." The former prime minister adds, "So the Al Saud [family] have something to worry about."

Caught between their allies in Washington and their Arab and Islamic brothers in the region, the ruling Al Saud family has had to walk a strategic tightrope to avoid provoking or offending one side or the other. They have never been entirely successful in either endeavor.

On one side, regional and domestic forces are pressuring the regime to take more hard-line stands in accord with key concerns of the Arab and Islamic worlds. These include outrage over a lack of US action to protect Palestinians from Israeli violations of international law, widespread anger over harm to Iraqi civilians of the US-backed embargo against Baghdad, and, most recently, concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

On the other side are those in Washington urging the Saudis to draw ever closer to the West and its policies. US officials are pressing the Saudis to become more proactive in hunting down possible suspects in the Sept. 11 attack and moving more forcefully to seize and freeze financial assets of those suspected of helping bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The problem is the Saudis have long balked at revealing any information to the West that might suggest a degree of vulnerability by the royal family. And Saudi officials don't want to appear to be functioning as American puppets identifying Saudi-Muslim suspects who might then face extradition for trial in a Western, non-Islamic legal system.

Saudi support

Despite such reservations, the Saudis have cooperated in two key areas. They permit a contingent of several thousand US military forces on Saudi soil to patrol the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. And the Saudis are supporting the US-led coalition by providing access to highly sophisticated air-warfare facilities at Prince Sultan Airbase southeast of Riyadh, where US military leaders are coordinating and directing many of the air attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Even this kind of assistance to the US is extremely problematic for the Saudis, some analysts say, because of serious unresolved religious questions about the propriety of an Islamic nation helping a non-Islamic nation - the US - attack and destroy an Islamic government. The Saudis had diplomatic relations with the Taliban government until Sept. 25.

Bin Laden has made clear his position on the issue, and a number of dissident Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia appear to agree with him. The Saudis have responded with statements from clerics endorsed by the royals. But analysts say there is a brisk exchange of dissident tapes, literature, and other information among a broad number of Saudis who do not support bin Laden and his extremist views, but who are uneasy about the state of affairs in the kingdom.

Despite this activity, most analysts contacted for this article say they believe the royal family will survive the current challenges. "I think they will get through it," says James Akins, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "You can't say that an absolute monarchy is the wave of the future, but I don't think that a regressive religious dictatorship is the wave of the future either," he says. "The royal family can change.... They are moving toward representative government."

Professor Karawan sees a more basic approach as necessary to help protect the Saudis. "It is time to pause, and think, and compare notes," he says. "We should figure out what [the terrorists] want us to do, and not do it."

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