Image in US irritates Saudis

Sensitive to criticism, they cite harassment of Muslims living in America as sign of US hypocrisy.


Khaled Al Maeena spends hours every day creating "calm mail out of hate mail," he says. Since Sept. 11, the editor of Saudi Arabia's leading English-language daily has been answering e-mails from Americans venting their anger about the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

In his replies, Mr. Al Maeena stresses Saudi respect for the US, ties between the two nations, and the fact that "we don't hate you." Al Maeena gets largely gracious answers, but admits that he's deeply frustrated by the way Americans see Saudi Arabia these days.

Three months after the attacks, Saudis of all stripes echo his irritation.

There is a deep discomfort here with US criticism of Saudi Arabia and unease about where the US "war on terror" will lead. While there are strong incentives for both countries to maintain close ties, anger and resentment here could strain Saudi support for the US counterterror drive, particularly if it extends beyond Afghanistan.

"Since Sept. 11, there is all this anti-Saudi bias in the US," complains Khlood Al Sheikh, a student at Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University, as she sits in a cafe at a posh new mall. "What makes it worse is that Americans are so convinced they are right."

Saudis like Ms. Al Sheik speak of their disquiet about the US bombing of Afghani-stan, a poor Muslim country. But they express even greater concern about what is happening within US borders - harassment of Muslims, the targeting of Arab-Americans by law enforcement, and a general failure to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims.

The Saudi government has repeatedly rebuked the US media for its depiction of Saudi Arabia as a tacit supporter of extremist Islamic groups and, by extension, terrorism. "Some foreign newspapers have said that the Holy Koran is the cause of crimes ... God forbid," Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, told a gathering of provincial governors in November, before going on to condemn these "ferocious campaigns."

The Saudi-US bond dates back to the development of oil reserves during the 1930s. American firms built the Saudi oil industry, creating close economic ties that were reinforced by concerns about common enemies such as the Soviet Union, and Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Today, Saudi Arabia is an important military base for US troops. It is also America's second-largest supplier of oil, after Canada, and the leading Middle East importer of US goods. A drive down the main thoroughfares of Jeddah, the country's economic hub, evokes strip malls in the American Southwest: McDonald's, KFC, Baskin Robbins, and Chili's are among the dozens of US companies whose neon signs light up the night.

Culturally, though, the relationship is a very one-sided affair. Until Sept. 11, Saudis came in droves to visit, study, and live in the US. Though many of them feel a strong affinity for America, very few Americans can say the same about Saudi Arabia. The country remains tightly closed to outsiders who can only imagine what it's like based on reports of camels, oil, human rights abuses - and now, terrorism.

During the Saudi foreign minister's visit to Washington last week, the White House stressed that it was happy with Saudi cooperation. But the September attacks have created tensions between the two governments.

US officials say much of Al Qaeda's funding comes from Saudi-based charities and individuals. Unnamed administration sources have complained in the media about lackluster Saudi assistance in the US counterterror campaign.

The charges have angered Saudis who question US statements that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in Sept. 11 were Saudi. Prince Nayef, the interior minister, told The New York Times that "until now, we have no evidence that assures us that [the 15 Saudis] are related to Sept. 11."

The attempt to distance themselves from Sept. 11 and the prickliness about American criticism may be rooted in what Sandra Mackey, author of "Saudis, Inside the Hidden Kingdom," describes as an intense cultural sensitivity to how the outside world perceives Saudi Arabia.

But there are also more concrete concerns that underlie the Saudi reaction. The ruling family relies on deeply conservative Muslims in the center of the country for its core support. Like Saudis in the southern part of the country, which was home to the 15 men implicated in Sept. 11, many of these people believe that the presence of US forces on Saudi soil - infidels in the home of Islam's holiest shrines - is a blasphemy.

US support for Israel, especially during the past year in which hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, is another source of anger. Now, even moderate Saudis who are familiar with and admire the US are becoming critical of its actions.

While Saudi Arabia isn't a democracy and its leaders do not have to bow to public opinion, members of the royal family have justified their rule by claiming the family is acutely sensitive to the needs of its people. In practice, it balances between public sentiment and a very real need to maintain smooth US ties and a US military presence.

"The Saudi royal family remembers that its survival relies to a large degree on its relationship with the US," explains William Quandt, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. "They live in a pretty dangerous neighborhood. If they didn't have some kind of patron on security issues, it's hard to imagine over the long haul that they'd have an easy time surviving. [The Gulf War] was a pretty good example of that."

That reliance breeds resentment. Layla, a 30-something employee at a European firm, says that the US has too much power. "People are really aware that the US can do what it wants here," says Layla, who didn't want her real name used. "Many people think that the trouble with the economy right now is because the government is trying to make the US happy. Why is the price of oil so low? During a war, you expect the price of oil to go up!"

Layla, a US college graduate, says her greatest concern is harassment of Saudis and Muslims in the US. Saudi media has devoted considerable newsprint to US hate crimes against Muslims and to the return of Saudi students who no longer feel comfortable continuing their studies in the US.

The US government, Layla says, is being hypocritical when it condemns hate crimes against Muslims, but simultaneously targets Arabs for investigation on the basis of their ethnicity. She cites the thousands of men in Michigan who have been asked to report for voluntary interviews with law enforcement and the reports of Arab men being held without charges.

Al Maeena, the Arab News editor, echoes her charge that Americans are engaging in dangerous stereotyping. "People do not act in the plural - you don't say all Christians do this or that - but the media portrays us this way and demonizes Islam," he says, leaning forward in his leather office chair to make the point.

On the bulletin board opposite his desk, a poster features the British comedian Mr. Bean as a distinctly ridiculous Osama 'Bean' Laden. "What's bugging Saudis is that you've made a blanket judgment," he continues. "Just because 15 of 19 of [the Sept. 11 attackers] were Saudi doesn't mean we're all Jack the Ripper."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.