Blasts force Saudi hand

The bombings this week in Saudi Arabia are driving Washington and Riyadh both together - and apart.

This week's bombings of compounds in Riyadh symbolizing the American footprint on Saudi soil have ripped through the Saudi-American relationship like a calamity in the family.

Just as different families respond differently to shocks, it is not yet clear if a strategic union held together by oil and security interests will tighten or fall apart. But officials and experts agree the relationship confronts a turning point.

"The ability to withstand the strains has been exhausted since Sept. 11, and these recent events will exacerbate the troubles in a way that forces a choice," says Asad AbuKhalil, a Middle East specialist at California State University, Stanislaus. Ironically, "The two governments are going to pull rather closer. Both would like to pretend they are in the same fight together."

In the bombings' aftermath, the strains are bursting out in the open, and recriminations have begun. US officials, including the ambassador to Riyadh, are being surprisingly public with accusations that the Saudis - whom many feel have done too little to control the threat of Al Qaeda - failed to heed recent US calls for beefing up security at the residential compounds.

"They did not, as of the time of this particular tragic event, provide the security that we had requested," Ambassador Robert Jordan told CBS.

Even at the White House, where President Bush has sought to improve relations frayed by the Saudi-Al Qaeda connection, the tone is harsher than usual. "As with many countries around the world," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Wednesday, "Saudi Arabia must deal with the fact that it has terrorists inside its own country, and their presence is as much a threat to Saudi Arabia as to Americans."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department Thursday indicted two Yemeni men on charges of planning the USS Cole bombing. Attorney General John Aschcroft implied the two might also be involved in the Saudi bombings.

But signs are also emerging that, while the US will indeed seek to use the moment to win tougher counterterrorism actions from Riyadh, neither partner in the union wants the strains to result in divorce. So instead of the US pressing Saudi Arabia on democratization and human rights issues, for example, Mr. AbuKhalil says, the focus for now will remain on security.

Others agree that a split hasn't arrived.

"We have never been willing to have the heart-to-heart with Saudi Arabia that says, 'Your way of governance stinks, the products of this system are a threat, and all that has to change,' " says Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

US officials say the Saudi response to the bombings will be a test of the Saudis' sincerity about smoothing the relationship's rough spots.

But the economic underpinnings of the ties are what will motivate efforts to address each side's concerns.

"It will be oil that remains the lubricating factor in the US-Saudi relationship," says Herman Eilts, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

But he and others agree that the business ties that have linked the two countries will be strained by the blasts. "This will lead to a further closing of American society to Arabs and Muslims," says Charles Freeman, who served as American ambassador to Riyadh at the time of the Gulf War.

The initial response of some US politicians to the bombings is a call for ending dependence on Saudi oil.

In Saudi Arabia, even weak attempts to crack down on Al Qaeda, or more general political reforms, are met with resistance couched as anti-Americanism.

"The Saudi government is following a policy of close relations with the US that is anything but popular with the Saudi public," says Eilts.

At the same time, however, the power vacuum caused by succession questions is also a complicating factor in the kingdom.

As an example of the impact of rifts within the Saudi leadership, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz remains "suspicious of relations between the two countries," Eilts says, especially since tensions mounted over the way the FBI conducted its investigation into the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. Lingering bad blood is likely to complicate "chances of significant cooperation" at this point, Elits says, although some observers say the FBI has taken steps to enhance the agency's sensitivity to local customs and laws.

But beyond that, it is broader American polices - the US stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more recently the invasion of Iraq - that also limit the Saudi government's margin of action with a stiffly anti-American populace.

Still, the fact is that Al Qaeda remains operative - and perhaps stronger than ever - in Saudi Arabia. It's the awakening to that reality in the bombings' aftermath that is likely to bring the Saudi government closer to the US, experts say, even if the two countries remain mutually suspicious and drift even farther apart.

"After this event, Saudi Arabia will seal its fate with an unconditional alliance with the US," says AbuKhalil, who later this year will publish a book on US-Saudi relations. "It will make the regime increasingly unpopular with the public, but after weighing the relative threats [the Saudi leadership] will feel they don't have a choice."

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