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Congressional Hearings Present Blunt Criticism of Saudi Arabia - 2002-05-24

Saudi Arabia has come under sharp criticism in hearings on Capitol Hill. Experts testifying before congressional committees on the U.S. response to terrorism called for a change in U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia.

Two hearings on Capitol Hill examined the state of U-S/Saudi relations and recommendations for change in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the House International Relations Committee, lawmakers expressed impatience and anger with recent statements by Saudi officials and others.

Congressman Benjamin Gilman chairs the House Middle East subcommittee. "Saudi money," he said, "official or not, is behind much of the Islamic-extremist rhetoric and action in the world today. The Saudis have poured funds into the madrassahs in Pakistan that spawned the Taliban fighters. They have given, in effect, every potential suicide bomber or other anti-Israel terrorist a free life insurance policy."

Congressional critics quoted recent anti-American statements by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, and by a Saudi cleric who accompanied Saudi crown prince Abdullah to the United States.

Democrat Tom Lantos, a key congressional human rights advocate, condemned what he called "systematic discriminatory treatment of women" in Saudi Arabia, as well as the anti-American tone of the Saudi media. He said, "We are also opposed to the systematic media pursuit of the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda to come out of the whole region. It is systematic, government-approved, and nauseating, and it is simply unacceptable."

Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Richard Murphy, argues that Saudi Arabia has provided significant support to the U.S. war on terrorism, despite Riyadh's refusal to allow bombing runs to Afghanistan from bases in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Murphy said the United States has more latitude to effect change in Saudi Arabia's foreign rather than domestic policies, but should still send this strong message. "We should do everything possible to make it clear that Saudi money should not end up in schools or mosques that preach hate, intolerance, anti-Americanism." He said, "We should insist on continuing and expanding the Saudi monitoring where the money of its donors to charitable institutions has been going."

Former CIA director, James Woolsey, is known as one of the "hawks" in Washington advocating, among other things, U.S. military action against Iraq.

Mr. Woolsey credits Saudi crown prince Abdullah for his peace plan. But he says Saudi policies still pose a problem - and said U.S. reliance on Riyadh should be gradually reduced. Mr. Woolsey said, "Although we should not be seen to be withdrawing our military forces from Saudi Arabia under pressure from al-Qaida or anyone else, I think we should steadily take steps to be ready at the appropriate point to reduce our presence there, and to transfer our military activities to other places in the Persian Gulf where we already have some presence - Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman."

Among Mr. Woolsey's other recommendations, shifting Western oil dependence from Saudi Arabia to Russia and developing alternative fuels for automobiles.

Another witness, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, is also one of the "hawks" in Washington. He said Saudi Arabia is probably the most responsible for the growth of radical Islamic terrorism. He said, "I think the Saudis have a real claim to, unfortunately, to leadership, or to the distinction of being as responsible, really more responsible, than any other government - for fostering the climate, at least, in which these terrorists have been produced, and indeed for at best turning a blind eye and at worst giving a wink and nod to the development of terror."

Saudi Arabia featured prominently in a separate hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. There, Frank Gaffney, head of The Center for Security Policy, said Saudi Arabia - and other Arab governments - need to deal with anti-Western content in their media. "Cessation of the use of government-controlled media as outlets for this vitriolic anti-Americanism," he said.

Despite criticism of Saudi Arabia in general, the peace plan put forward by Saudi prince Abdullah was praised by several lawmakers and witnesses.

Mideast subcommittee chairman Gilman called the plan flawed, but said it nevertheless provides impetus to Arab countries to rethink their rejection of Israel.