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US - Saudi Relationship Put to the Test by Islamic Terrorism - 2004-02-18

America’s historical relationship with the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, has been put to the test since the fateful events of 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of September 11 were Saudis. Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world and alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack, is also Saudi born. Criticism of Saudi Arabia in the United States has been far reaching, from its system of government, education, religious and charitable institutions to the status of women. In turn, the kingdom has complained about American attacks on their culture, faith and the harsher treatment of their citizens in the United States. But as VOA’s Jela de Franceschi reports, there are strong ties that continue to bind the two countries together as they face the terrorist threat.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 delivered a harsh blow to U.S. - Saudi relations based on over 60 years of working together in mutually beneficial ways. Since then many Americans began to question the benefits. They blame the kingdom for fostering and financing a highly charged Islamist view of the world inimical to the United States.

A host of newly released books and documentaries argue that Saudi Arabia is not a friend to America but a foe and a threat. A number of U.S. lawmakers propose to punish the kingdom with export restrictions and curtailing travel of Saudi diplomats within the United States.

In turn, many Saudis have been shocked and hurt by this expression of hostility. They resent the fact that after so many decades of close partnership, Americans seem to be turning their back on the kingdom.

Richard Murphy, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says the official ties have continued since 9/11 without any great warmth. People-to-people relations are even cooler, given the terrorist threat.

“The American public feels that the Saudi government is not doing nearly enough to monitor financial transactions,” he says, “which have gone through charitable foundations in Saudi Arabia to foreign hands, some of which included terrorist groups. The Saudi public perception is that the Americans are wrong in that analysis. They feel the government of Saudi Arabia has done a considerable amount to combat terrorism, and they feel the American public does not understand their country and is hostile to their practice of Islam.”

Yes, the Saudis admit the 15 hijackers and Osama bin Laden are products of their country. But they argue so are the vast majority of peaceful Saudis and a growing number of reformers who would appeal to the West.

This rift needs serious attention, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies after a recent visit to the kingdom: “What struck me about the attitudes of many people we met in that trip was the level of misunderstanding and anger regarding the United States mostly matched in level of anger and misunderstanding in this country relating to Saudi Arabia. When I first heard the phrase ‘clash of civilizations’, I thought it was inherently ridiculous and that what it described were problems within civilizations, which spread out and impacted on the West. But the great fear I have is that Bin Laden may actually succeed in provoking something approaching a clash of civilizations simply because the anger and misunderstanding on both sides can hand him a victory which he could never otherwise achieve. That to me is the most important single reason why we need to re-forge our relations.”

Despite the antagonism, the U.S. -Saudi relationship remains strategic and important. At stake are security and oil. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves and therefore plays a vital role in determining supplies and prices. For that reason, if for no other, says Ambassador Murphy, good relations with the United States are essential. If Saudi Arabia should fall into the hands of an adversary, it could be catastrophic.

“The fact that makes Saudi Arabia unique is not only the size of its production,” Mr. Murphy says, “but that the Saudi oil sector is the only industry in the world that has the substantial capacity to exceed its present production levels. They have built in a surplus capacity of over two million barrels a day to help meet the pressures on the world market created by, for instance, the situation in Venezuela or Nigeria where production was sharply cut back and stopped for a while. The Saudis were there to replace it, as they did with the Iraq oil after the 1991 war.”

The Saudis came to the rescue when Iraqi oil went off the market in the U.S.-led war. They assured the United States of a continuing supply.

Mr. Cordesman says oil binds the two countries in a tight embrace, like it or not: “The point that doesn’t change is the level of dependence we have on Gulf and Saudi oil and the dependence the kingdom has on its oil exports. In its latest estimates, the Department of Energy calls upon Saudi Arabia to increase its production capacity by about 140% between now and 2025.”

The free flow of oil also requires cooperation on security matters. A U.S. military presence in the region has protected Saudi Arabia from external threats, including Saddam Hussein. With the Iraqi danger removed, the United States has shifted its military forces out of Saudi Arabia. But it continues to help, says Mr. Cordesman.

“While we have changed our military presence in Saudi Arabia it does not mean that we have left Saudi Arabia in any real sense,” he says. “Saudi Arabia has about 5,000 American made armored vehicles in its inventory. Two hundred of its most advanced combat aircraft are from the U.S. Saudi Arabia has imported another $7.7 billion worth of arms since 1995 from the United States. The deliveries of those arms will spread out over the next 10 years.”

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia is trying to prove it is an able partner in the war on terrorism. Its efforts increased after two suicide bombings in Riyadh last year killed 52 people and wounded scores more. This was their wake up call, say Saudis. Islamic fundamentalism had hit home.

Those attacks have led to some fundamental rethinking of the internal terrorist threat. The Saudis were forced to confront serious fissures in their society.

It was the end of business as usual, says Jon Alterman, director of the CSIS Middle East Program: “The government has stepped up its use of law enforcement, stepped up its cooperation on law enforcement and intelligence with the United States. It stepped up its counter-terrorism work with the U.S. and other foreign governments and also internally. It is embarking on a broad series of reforms, partly educational reforms - looking at the curriculum once again, looking at the issues of tolerance in the curriculum, and toward religious reform and political reform and adopting a practice of frankness and dialogue that has not been a previous tradition.”

Saudi Arabia shares many problems with other Arab countries: a population explosion, a high unemployment rate and a faltering economy. But it also has difficulty in redefining itself in today’s world, says Mr. Alterman.

“Saudi Arabia has been led by the Saud family since the 1920’s,” he says, “using the pattern of governance developed in the early stages of the kingdom when the population was much less, when communications were different, and when Saudis did not travel as much and were not as exposed to other kinds of ideas. The Saudis are increasingly forced to define what their lives are like and what Saudi Arabia is like in the global context instead of merely in the Saudi context. That’s a process that is often times bumpy.”

The kingdom intends to join the World Trade Organization next year. Membership requires economic reforms such as privatization and opening the country to foreign investment and business competition. Analysts say this will not be easily done, but it would lead to economic growth and greater integration with the outside world. It would make Saudi Arabia and its faith and its oil more secure.