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US-Saudi Relations Strained Over Royal Family Terrorist Link Allegations - 2002-11-25

The complicated relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia faces new strains amid revelations that U.S. officials are investigating whether money donated by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington might have helped some of the September 11 hijackers.

Saudi officials say it is "outrageous" and "crazy" to suggest that Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, intended to financially support any of the September 11 hijackers.

But Saudi and U.S. investigators are trying to figure out how thousands of dollars donated by the Princess to a Saudi family in need wound up in the accounts of two men who allegedly provided financial support to two of the September 11th hijackers.

The investigation has unleashed a wave of anti-Saudi rhetoric on Capitol Hill, including the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby. He spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program, saying, "We should follow the facts. We should think about the victims of the terrorist attack. We should think about future attacks. Who is funding the terrorists? If it is the (Saudi) Royal family, we need to put it out and the American people need to know. If not, that needs to be brought out." Democrats were quick to seize on the story as well. Senator Joseph Lieberman called for the Bush administration to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia.

He spoke on the CBS program Face the Nation, saying, "And if you are with the terrorists, you are going to feel our wrath and I think we have to apply those standards not just to enemies like Iraq and Afghanistan under Taleban, or Iran. We have to apply it to our friends like Saudi Arabia."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration continues to press allies like Saudi Arabia for help in the war on terrorism. "And the United States and President Bush do continue and will continue to press those nations to fulfill their responsibilities on the financial front, the political front, the diplomatic front and, as necessary, the military front to press the war against terror wherever it is," he said. Saudi officials are concerned that the terror funding controversy could damage relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Saudi spokesman Adel al Jubeir was interviewed on NBC's Today program. He said, "Osama bin Laden's decision to put 15 Saudis on the (hijacked) airplanes when he had 50 different nationalities, including Americans (to choose from), was a desire to give this operation a Saudi face, to create doubts about Saudi Arabia and drive a wedge between our two countries. And hearing some of the reactions in the media and in the U.S. Congress, I believe he may have succeeded to some extent. But we should not let him get away with it."

Chas Freeman was the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War and is now President of the Middle East Policy Council here in Washington. He doubts that Princess Haifa al-Faisal deliberately tried to help any of the hijackers.

But Ambassador Freeman says the Saudis create problems for themselves by the way in which they handle complaints from their critics in the U.S. Congress. "The Saudis have a perennial problem of inability to communicate. They do not have a natural desire to explain themselves. They do not make the attempt. The fact is that if the Saudis do not make a better effort to inform the world and their own people what they are doing, they should not be surprised if no one knows about it and they are vulnerable to criticism," he said.

Ambassador Freeman says this latest controversy has placed new strains on U.S.-Saudi relations. But he also said it is not likely to affect another issue of contention between the two countries; what to do about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "I think this incident is part of a general souring of U.S. Saudi relations and a souring of tone, which has occurred despite the fact that leaders on both sides continue to see the strategic imperative of cooperation. But I do not think it will have much impact on the Saudi view of a prospective American attack on Iraq. I think Saudi opposition to that is very strong and it is firmly based on entirely different concerns than this one," he said.

Ambassador Freeman said it is important for officials from the Bush administration and the Saudi government to reach out to one another to cooperate in clearing the air about the terror-funding allegations.