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Are Extremist Groups Changing the US Saudi-Relationship? - 2002-09-05

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York City raised suspicions among some analysts about an Arab nation considered an ally of the United States - Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers aboard the airliners used in the attacks were from Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin-Laden, the accused mastermind of the attacks, is a member of a wealthy Saudi family. Some analysts have concerns that Saudi Arabia may be, directly or indirectly, supporting terrorists, even as it courts Washington's friendship.

While the Bush administration is expressing confidence in Saudi Arabia's support of the U.S.-led war against terrorism, some U.S. foreign policy experts have suggested that Saudis support terrorists or groups linked to them.

These experts have accused elements in Saudi Arabia of funding fundamentalist Islamic groups around the world and inciting violence and radicalism through anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda. These experts say Saudi Arabia's support for the conservative Wahhabi Islamic ideology helps foment Muslim extremism.

Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam, insists on a strict interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and is Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. Strict Wahhabis consider those outside the sect as heathens and enemies. Critics say the movement had led to misinterpretations and distortions of Islam. Saudi charities have been funding Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, which some critics consider breeding grounds for extremism.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney says there are members of the Saudi royal family and some government and private entities that are known to sympathize with al-Qaida, suggesting what he calls "far-reaching links" between these entities and individuals and the terrorist group. He says the Islamist agenda espoused by Wahhabist proselytizing is very similar to Osama bin Laden's.

Mr. Gaffney says the Saudi royal family, while of widely diverse views as a group, has struck what he calls a "Faustian deal,"

"They have struck a bargain with Osama bin Laden and, as I say, the Wahhabist theocrats, that basically they can run the religious life of the kingdom, and they can have - in the case of bin Laden particularly, after the Afghanistan war - they can have the run of the rest of the world, as long as they don't try to do anything to jeopardize the kingdom's government and royal family itself," he said.

The Bush administration has emphasized the U.S.-Saudi friendship, and expressed confidence in the kingdom's commitment to fighting terrorism. President Bush met with Saudi Arabia's ambassador recently at his Texas ranch.

In a recent appearance on ABC television, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, rejected the charges that his nation supports terrorism. He said the United States should not make enemies of allies.

"For us, we know we are fighting communism, we are fighting terrorism," he said. "We are working assiduously with the United States in this regard. We have a committee, in which we share information. We have a committee that also deals with the freezing of assets of anybody who finances this terror. And, in spite of all these things, we are still accused of aiding the terrorism that is against Saudi Arabia."

Former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross told Fox television that the September 11 attacks showed the divergence in values between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Ross made it clear Washington should press Saudi Arabia to make changes politically and economically.

"I think the Saudis themselves get nervous, when they begin to see Americans are questioning the value of the relationship with Saudi Arabia," he said. "The reason they will never let the relationship get too far out of bounds is, fundamentally, they know that, when push comes to shove, there is only one country that can defend them, and that is us. Now, I think that does give us leverage. Historically - I wouldn't say it's only for this administration - but, historically, there has been a great deal of reluctance to push the Saudis very hard. The fact is, I don't think we can take the kind of historic attitude we have towards the realities of life within Saudi Arabia.

The former U.S. Mideast envoy pointed out Saudi Arabia faces enormous problems, such as rising unemployment, a youthful population, and a plunging per capita income. Such factors are often seen as fueling the growth of Muslim extremist groups such as al-Qaida. Mr. Ross said the Saudi rulers must work to relieve these social pressures, and the United States, at a minimum, should discuss with the Saudis the consequences of supporting extremist groups.