Backlash in Saudi Arabia

As revealed in a recent front-page story in The Washington Post, "Briefing Depicted Saudis as Enemies," neoconservatives in the US are gaining a wider audience for their attempts to demonize Saudi Arabia.

Such jingoistic talk runs counter to the position of the Bush administration, which recognizes Saudi Arabia as a vital ally. Still, the talk is fanning resentment in the kingdom and making it more difficult for the royal family to cooperate with the US on a range of initiatives, such as regional peace, economic development, and maintaining stability in the oil markets.

Saudis see a growing animosity in American government and media. A string of editorials and analyses in major US publications harshly criticize the kingdom for its perceived role in the 9/11 attacks – namely, that Saudi Arabia supports, finances, and politically backs terror groups around the world – claims that are unsubstantiated. Pundits such as Bill Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, have advocated the removal of the Saudi royal family.

While Americans may realize that a free and independent media can give an outlet for extremist views, domestic Saudi critics such as Eid Al Qarni have argued on several Arab satellite networks that such remarks are part of "an orchestrated US media campaign against Saudi Arabia." American determination to remove the Palestinian and Iraqi leaders, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, regardless of the kingdom's view, has strengthened the conclusion that Americans hold the Saudis in disdain.

But what has especially enraged Saudis are rumors of an American plan to partition the kingdom. A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from Riyadh from an enraged domestic Saudi dissident recently released from house arrest. He wanted to know if the US had commissioned a plan to invade Saudi Arabia and set up a puppet regime in the oil-rich Eastern Province? This would supposedly guarantee US oil supplies and shift US troops away from the holy soil of Mecca and Medina.

I had also heard that a senior Saudi security official hurried back from a trip abroad last month to discuss similar news with senior Saudi policymakers.

It turns out there was something behind these rumors. As reported in the Post, a July 10 briefing to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board argued for giving the Saudis an ultimatum: "Stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields." I have procured another recent report, prepared for the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, which discusses the option of invading the kingdom to secure oil fields.

Last month, the satellite TV station Al Jazeera dedicated its most popular talk show to a discussion of the supposed American plan to invade and dissect the kingdom. The main guest, Dr. Mohsen Al Awaji, a prominent liberal Islamic scholar once jailed for his criticisms of the Saudi government, denounced the plan on the show. Even the most senior Saudi Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hassan Al Saffar (who would ostensibly benefit from the plan if this mainly Shiite province were detached from majority Sunni Saudi Arabia), condemned the idea vociferously.

In this climate, those leaders who have most distanced themselves from the United States – such as Minister of Defense Prince Sultan and Minister of Interior Prince Nayef – have seen their popularity skyrocket. That a prominent figure such as Prince Sultan has moved away from the pro-American camp is important: As minister of defense for the past several decades, he oversaw billions of dollars of defense contracts with American firms, making Saudi Arabia the largest importer of US arms. He was also, until recently, one of the most vocal proponents of the kingdom's strategic partnership with America.

After Sept. 11, shortcomings in Saudi society and lapses in its government policies have become apparent, such as a failure to control and moderate extreme rhetoric in mosques and universities, massive unemployment, and the role of women.

But more than 50 years of cooperation with the United States should provide impetus to work with, not alienate, this vital US ally. As the world's largest exporter of petroleum, Saudi Arabia has played a stabilizing role in global energy markets for decades, guaranteeing America reasonable oil prices.

And while Saudi foreign policy will always be informed by the kingdom's responsibilities as guardian of Islam's holiest sites, the Saudi monarchy has more often been a force for cooperation with the non-Muslim world. This stance has been extremely valuable to America in economic, political, and military terms.

America and Saudi Arabia are at the heart of two great but very different civilizations. It is natural that major disagreements should occur, but through 10 US administrations and five Saudi kingships these differences have been handled peacefully. If those who want an enemy in Saudi Arabia gain the upper hand, they will, unfortunately, find one. And the world will become a much more dangerous place.

• Nawaf Obaid is a Saudi analyst and author of the book 'The Oil Kingdom at 100' (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).

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