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Saudi Arabia in Battle to Keep a Clean Image - 2004-06-22

Saudi Arabia has stepped up its campaign against terrorists trying to destabilize the oil-rich kingdom. Officials are expressing concern the attacks against foreign workers will spread fear and panic at a time the country is trying to beef up its economy with foreign investments.

Saudi government spokesman Adel al-Jubeir says the terrorists who have kidnapped and killed Americans and other foreign workers in the country are really targeting the government. Al-Qaida has long denounced the Saudi leadership for its close ties to the United States. The radicals consider Americans infidel trespassers in the region.

"We believe that one objective of the terrorists is to drive foreigners out of Saudi Arabia because they feel it will weaken our economy," Mr. al Jubeir said. "And they feel if our economy is weakened, our government is weakened, which is a wrong argument."

Arab News Editor Khalid Maeena is not no sure. Mr. Maeena says the terrorists have managed to tarnish the image of Saudi Arabia at a vulnerable moment when it is trying to woo back foreign investors who are put off by the volatility of the Middle East.

"All these attacks have caused great damage not only to the image but they have caused a dent in the economic armor of Saudi Arabia because what has happened is a loss of confidence," he said. "And, as we are embarking on a program for people from the outside to come and invest and also from inside the country, these kinds of actions also put fear in the hearts of many."

The kidnapping and murder last week of American contractor Paul Johnson comes in the wake of a series of deadly attacks against foreign workers and Western residential compounds. The U.S. embassy has advised American nationals to consider leaving.

Middle East analysts point out Saudi Arabia's image was already clouded by the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington were Saudi nationals.

After a series of bloody attacks in the oil-rich kingdom last year, the Saudi government stepped up its counter-terrorism campaign to try to eliminate the terrorist threat.

Saudi spokesman Adel al-Jubeir suggests that crackdown forced al-Qaida to change its tactics.

"We believe that as a consequence of the continuous hunt by Saudi security forces, al-Qaida changed its strategy from large scale spectacular attacks that require a lot of logistics and planning and technical capabilities to random acts of murder," he said.

Middle East analysts believe the killing last weekend of a top al-Qaida terrorist was a major blow to al-Qaida in the kingdom. But, they wonder, for how long?

From his vantage point in Jeddah, newspaper editor Maeena says the Saudi terrorist groups were losing popular support even before the grisly beheading murder of Paul Johnson last week. He says their violence is targeted at destroying the government but not at building anything in its place.

"What is it do they want? Do they have a platform? I think these people are basically anarchists who want to make problems and cause pandemonium," he said.

Middle East analyst Thomas Lippman agrees. The author of several books and articles on Saudi Arabia says the terrorists' use of Islam to justify their bloodshed has backfired even among religious extremists who support their battle against the Saudi government and U.S. influence in the region.

"Even public dissidents who have been the most critical of the Saudi government and the relationship of the United States, people who have been jailed for their beliefs because they are so extreme, came out this week and said publicly that the killing of foreigners and mass murder are anti Islamic and have to stop," he said. "There are plenty of people in Saudi Arabia, who oppose the government , who oppose the relationship with the United States, who are narrow-minded and have bigoted beliefs but they are not supporters of mass murder."

A year-long wave of bloody attacks that has killed more than 30 foreigners and also claimed Muslim victims has started to turn public opinion against the radicals. Analysts say the government needs to build on that shift in opinion to bolster its war on terrorism while they thrash out a more long-term solution.