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The US-Saudi Relationship: Allies Amid Divisive Issues - 2002-08-30


While some in the U.S. media have harshly criticized Saudi Arabia, the Bush Administration continues to emphasize its close ties to the oil-rich kingdom. Recently President Bush hosted Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at his Texas ranch. There are major issues dividing the two countries, but others keep them allied.

Saudis are quick to seize on any criticism of them in the United States, and they have had plenty of opportunities recently. Some American commentators do not let them forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attack were Saudis, and families of some of the American victims have filed a lawsuit against the royal family for allegedly financing terrorist groups.

Saudi objection to a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq riles other Americans, one of whom told a quasi-official U.S. defense board that it may be necessary to seize Saudi oil fields.

The Bush Administration quickly repudiated this suggestion and reaffirmed its strong commitment to Saudi Arabia, though that does not necessarily quiet the critics.

The president of the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations, John Duke Anthony, says one problem may be that Saudis know far more about America than Americans know about Saudis. Mr. Anthony says very few Americans have bothered to learn about a country that has far different religious and cultural values.

The result is that misconceptions abound, and a superpower can end up making super mistakes.

The tendency is to treat Saudi Arabia more like an oil well than a nation, says Mr. Anthony. True, it contains one quarter of the earth's oil reserves, but a lot more besides, above all Islam's two most holy sites.

"Indeed in terms of Mecca and Medina alone and the Haj (pilgrimage), it is the epicenter of prayer and pilgrimage, of faith and spiritual devotion for fully one fifth, and aiming towards one-quarter of all of humanity," Mr. Anthony said.

Saudi Arabia is also strategically located for dealing with the Arab world. Mr. Anthony says the United States could hardly do without it and better not try.

Saudis, for example, cooperate with the United States in air surveillance of Southern Iraq to prevent an attack by Baghdad.

"Being able to fly and survey and gather intelligence all the way up to the 32nd parallel gives a greater degree of geo-strategic and defensive depth than could otherwise be accomplished in any of the other GCC countries - Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman," Mr. Anthony said.

For this and other kinds of cooperation, Mr. Anthony says the Saudis have been harshly criticized by less cooperative Muslims.

"We are talking about a country that has stood by the United States, gone out on a limb, gone out on a twig at the end of the limb, and alone amid the countries in the Arabian peninsula on the Gulf has withstood the anger of its people for having done so," he said. The limb is not always visible, says Walter Cutler, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Much of the cooperation is understandably behind the scenes.

"There is a lot more going on in the way of cooperation than the people in either country seem to know," said Mr. Cutler. "After all, when you are fighting terrorism, you do not do it in the middle of the street. You do it quietly for obvious reasons. This is a very dangerous game that is being played, and you have to do it in confidence."

Ambassador Cutler notes there are cleavages between the two countries that never will be entirely bridged. Saudi Arabia shuns formal democracy, but has a consultative process that is gradually opening up decision-making.

Though there is considerable discontent with the economy and lack of jobs, Ambassador Cutler thinks a popular uprising against the royal family is unlikely.

"When I was there in the kingdom in June, I was rather struck about how many of the social and related issues are being openly discussed in the press, issues frankly that were talked about, but not written about when I was there in the '80's. I think most Saudis would say, yes, change is coming. Change is inevitable. But please, let us make it as gradual and orderly as we can," Mr. Cutler said.

Ambassador Cutler says change could come to Saudi Arabia faster and easier if the region's most contentious issue could be resolved: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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