Apparent Role of Saudis Brings Tensions Into Focus

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Saudi Arabia, the world's petroleum Goliath: Is it "close to the edge" of becoming a U.S. adversary, or worse? And, if it gets sent "over the edge" in the upcoming War, what will happen to the supply and price of energy?

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Apparent Role of Saudis Brings the Kingdom's Tensions Into Focus Dan Morgan Washington Post Service Saturday, September 22, 2001

WASHINGTON A deepening and increasingly visible relationship between the Saudi royal family and the U.S. military since the 1991 Gulf War has inflamed anti-American passions within the country's influential Islamic establishment, particularly its radical anti-government fringe. According to Saudi and U.S. sources, the friction over this relationship may have led to unprecedented involvement by Saudis in the Sept. 11 suicide attacks in New York and Washington. While some of the hijackers were non-Saudis who apparently used stolen Saudi identity papers, at least four of the 19 suspects appear to be real Saudis, according to a Saudi source who has been in contact with officials in Riyadh. The families of a number of suspects using Saudi names and documents have been unable to contact them since the attacks, he said.

Although Saudis have been involved in terrorist bombings against U.S. targets before in Saudi Arabia - notably in 1995 and 1996 - the attacks of Sept. 11 appear to mark the first Saudi participation in such attacks outside the kingdom or in the suicide tactics that have been a hallmark of terrorism in Lebanon and Israel. Five of the suspects used the names Alghamdi or Alshehri, which are common among two tribes in southwestern Saudi Arabia where Islamic militants are particularly strong. A dissident Islamic cleric, Safar Hawali, who was released from house arrest in June 1999 with two other radical clerics, has family roots and many followers in that region.

Saudi officials emphasized that they have yet to establish or receive conclusive proof that nationals from their country were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The chief information official of the Saudi Embassy in Washington said Wednesday that most, if not all, the suspects had used stolen identities.

U.S. officials have identified as their chief suspect Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive who has consistently railed against the same American military presence in Saudi Arabia that so upsets many other Muslim activists in the kingdom. U.S. law enforcement officials have said that they are questioning a number of Saudi pilots as part of an investigation into the attacks and are holding a Saudi doctor as a material witness. These developments have refocused attention on internal problems in America's closest Gulf ally after a period in which anti-government and anti-U.S. agitation seemed to have subsided. "This is going to begin an international scrutiny of the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia," said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi oil and security analyst. The Saudi authorities in the past have resisted such scrutiny, drawing criticism from the FBI, for instance, for refusing to allow U.S. agents to interview suspects in the bombing of an American military installation.

Saudi and U.S. analysts said that the United States was poorly prepared to assess on its own the strength of the radical Islamic movement within the Saudi power structure, having failed to develop a relationship with the religious community commensurate with its interlocking connections to the Saudi military, government and royal family. According to a nonclassified version of a study done by Mr. Obaid for the State Department in May 1998, "U.S. intelligence on Saudi Arabia suffers from misunderstanding the radical nature and underestimating the power of the religious establishment."

Several scholars and analysts credited Crown Prince Abdullah, who has taken over day-to-day government from the ailing King Fahd, for defusing religious discontent that swept the kingdom in the mid-1990s. Among other things, the unrest led to a bombing in Riyadh in November 1995 that killed five Americans and the truck-bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments in Dhahran that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in June 1996. But in the last several years, the violence seemed to have dissipated and Islamic-based anti-government tension to have subsided.

"Abdullah has been a key factor in relieving fundamentalist pressure on the Saudi government because his own personal piety and behavior are beyond question," said Chas Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom who now is president of the Middle East Policy Council. But he added that the government "has a major security problem and it understands this." Internal stability in Saudi Arabia is crucial for long-term U.S. security interests. The kingdom serves as a military bulwark against Iraq, a counterweight to Iran and the key piece in a loose U.S.-backed military alliance of Arab states along the Gulf.

Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has gone from being mainly a large supplier of oil to being the principal U.S. ally and economic partner in the region. In the 1970s and 1980s, it helped recycle oil income into the international banking system. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Iranian revolution the same year caused it to turn to the United States for modern weapons, including F-15s, helicopters, transport planes, tanks and air defense weapons such as Patriot and Hawk missiles. And it was the main staging ground for U.S. forces that drove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Since 1981, U.S. construction companies and arms suppliers have made more than $50 billion in Saudi Arabia, according to the Congressional Research Service. More than 30,000 Americans are employed by Saudi companies or joint U.S.-Saudi ventures, and U.S. investments in the country reached $4.8 billion in 2000, according to the Commerce Department. The U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. recently was chosen by the Saudi government to lead two of three consortiums developing gas projects worth $20 billion to $26 billion.

"What started as a military pillar to resist Soviet incursion into the region has become an uncomfortable commitment to the interests of a royal family that has become increasingly unpopular with younger Islamic clerics and Saudi nationalists," said Scott Armstrong, a Washington journalist who is preparing a book on the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. Scholars say these developments - in particular the continued stationing of an estimated 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War and the use of Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj to patrol and bomb southern Iraq - upset a delicate balance within the Saudi power structure. While the royal family continued to view U.S. forces as essential for security, Mr. bin Laden's charges that American "crusader forces" were occupying the homeland of Islam's holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina found a receptive audience in some Saudi religious circles. Simultaneously, a downturn in the Saudi economy starting in the late 1980s resulted in fewer Saudis studying abroad and more attending religious schools at home, according to Daniel Brumberg, associate professor of government at Georgetown University. "The result has been a young, disgruntled generation of Saudis with little exposures to the West, who imbibed the fundamentalist rhetoric and world view," he said. "There was a constituency for the rhetoric of resentment."

Members of the key religious organizations are appointed by the king. But below them is a Muslim establishment in which younger, militant clerics have become increasingly emboldened to criticize the presence of "foreign infidels" after 1991. Mr. bin Laden, say scholars, developed a close relationship with a number of these clerics after returning from the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2001 The International Herald Tribune, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), September 23, 2001


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