US Must Tread Carefully in the Saudi Sands

A pillar of the royal family's rule is its image as the protector of Islam's holy places. American words and actions could undermine that image.

Each day that goes by without real progress on the terrorist bombing in Dhahran adds to the strain of the United States-Saudi Arabia partnership. Further acts of extremist violence could rally support for equally extremist policies and statements by the US government. Already, verbal blasts have been exchanged over whether or not the Saudi police should have let US investigators interrogate the four suspects beheaded for the last terrorist attack, a car-bombing in Riyadh. The accusation is that Saudi standards of police work are not up to the task at hand and American personnel are not safe in the desert kingdom.

If the disaster on TWA Flight 800 proves to be an act of terrorism, the bind on the Al-Sauds will only tighten. Should US officials identify the suspects quickly, Saudi policework will seem ineffective in comparison. Conversely, if the US fails to catch the perpetrators, the sense of frustration with extremist violence that many Americans feel could create a volatile mix of fingerpointing, bombastic rhetoric, and equally draconian antiterrorism policies. While it is easy to feel a sense of outrage and frustration, this is a time to tread lightly in the sands of Saudi Arabia.

Operation Desert Storm was the largest US military involvement in the region, and its remnants linger as a thorn in the side of the Saudi ruling family. The roof of the modern house of al-Saud rests on two pillars: its ability to dispense oil-derived largess and the family's role as protector of Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holiest cities. As falling oil prices and budget woes have weakened the first pillar, weight has shifted to the second.

Saud dependence on Western military support, real or perceived, mars this image as the guardian of the holy cities. Fear of Western dependence is not limited to virulent anti-Americans. Even moderate Saudis question Western motives. As the tide of colonialism receded in the 1950s, it left a residue of resentment and suspicion throughout the Arab world. Few things please King Fahd more than reminding the world of Saudi Arabia's position as the only Arab country that was never a colony. Nothing stings more than Iranian caricatures of Riyadh as a servant of the West.

Arab experience with foreign colonization dates back to the beginning of recorded history. By the time of the cold war, Arabs had long felt like pawns in a global chess game. World dependence on Saudi oil has only heightened the fear that someone, somewhere, has designs on the desert kingdom.

If the Sauds are seen as weak and corrupt puppets for colonial rule, their position as defenders of the faith is called into question. In a culture where church and state are inseparable, the monarch's religious esteem determines his power. This is why Riyadh balks at the suggestion that "Islamic fundamentalists" threaten the government. The ruling family sees conservative Muslims as allies, not enemies. Those who oppose the government on "Islamic" grounds are seen as radicals or heretics, but definitely not fundamentalists.

IN such a climate, high-profile American action would be counterproductive. The much-publicized dispatch of an FBI team, along with statements made at the Group of Seven summit, underscore Western frustration with extremist violence.

Implementing frustration under the guise of a "get tough" policy will only give the radicals' rhetoric credence. If the US alienates the Saudi populace and weakens the regime, it will only become more difficult to combat terrorism. Most Saudis, although occasionally critical of the government and suspicious of the West, still support the ruling family. While those who set off the blast in Dhahran are in the extreme minority, now is a crucial time for the Sauds. Declines in Saudi social spending have raised popular dissatisfaction. The government and the opposition are engaged in a public-opinion competition. While the Sauds have slowed unpopular budget cuts, the bombers have taken care to avoid Saudi casualties.

Aggressive US actions or statements could send a message that the ruling family is expected to follow US orders. Such a message is dangerous and misleading. The US and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a long, positive relationship based on mutual dependence and respect. Our actions while guests in Saudi Arabia must continue to demonstrate that respect. Should they fail to do so, the last pillar of Saudi legitimacy may be irrevocably damaged, leading to the ruling family's collapse. That would represent US interests being trampled into the sand under their own weight.

*Jeffrey Lewis researches Middle Eastern issues in Washington.

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