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Saudi Arabia Analysts Comment on US Criticism, Bad Press - 2002-02-09

Saudi Arabia is on the public relations offensive to counter complaints in the U.S. Congress and the media that its cooperation in the war against terrorism has been lukewarm.

Shortly after the September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul-Aziz donated $10 million to a fund for rebuilding the New York landmark. But New York's mayor rejected the offer after the Prince criticized U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Several American newspaper editorials have complained about the low level of Saudi cooperation with the U.S. war on terrorism and noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September bombing attack were Saudi citizens.

Some U.S. lawmakers even want to cut U.S. military presence in the desert kingdom. Ironically, terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden wants the same thing, and threatened the Saudi leadership for allowing non-Muslim troops into the Kingdom, which is the site of Islam's two holiest shrines.

But Saudi leaders are chafing at the U.S. criticism and bad press.

The former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal recently told an American television interviewer his country is baffled by the negative publicity.

"Your President, your Secretary of Defense, your Secretary of State, all the high officials here tell us Saudi Arabia is doing all the things that it has been asked to do. And yet, we hear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune so-called unnamed officials from the White House or State Department being critical of the Kingdom so we are confused," he says.

Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, says such tension is not new, but should not seriously dent a solid relationship that was established more than half a century ago.

"Every time there are tensions or a crisis in our relationship, we tend to round up the usual suspects - instability in the royal family, conservative nature of the Wahabi sect of Islam, the fact that it is not a modern Islamic society, human-rights issues, dependence on oil. These are things that come in cycles," he says.

A former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs Robert Pelletreau has said tensions also have increased over Saudi efforts to soften U.S. criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"And they try to package it as the advice of a friend they hope will be taken seriously. And I do not think they feel their advice is being given proper consideration within the U.S. government," he says.

Another point of tension is President George Bush's threat of action against Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, which he labeled an axis of evil.

Mideast analyst Cordesman says the tough words on Iraq and Iran could disturb Saudi Arabia's diplomatic balancing act with its neighbors.

"Saudi Arabia's improved ties to Iran have basically eliminated Iranian terrorism activities inside Saudi Arabia. They seem to have strengthened the moderate elements, certainly not the hard-liners. And I think Saudi Arabia has deep concerns that we may be using rhetoric about Iraq that we are not prepared to back up with effective war-fighting options or effective options to create some kind of replacement for Saddam Hussein," he says.

Those fears were reflected by Saudi Prince Turki in his interview on the NBC television program "Meet the Press."

"I think any change in Iraq with the Iraqi regime and toppling of Saddam Hussein must come from inside Iraq and there are people in Iraq who want to do that. If you send invasion forces from outside you only rally people to Saddam Hussein, particularly in Iraq," the prince said.

Analysts say Saudi leaders also resent criticism of their domestic policies as they try to modernize a highly conservative Islamic society.

But analysts say Saudi Arabia, like many U.S. allies, is puzzled by the sharper U.S. viewpoint because it has not realized how profoundly the September terrorist attack has influenced U.S. attitudes.