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Top-ranking Saudis end visit without old honeymoon aura Unlike in Bush era, ties are frayed over wide variety of issues


WASHINGTON -- The highest-ranking Saudi Arabian delegation in 12 years ends a strained visit to Washington today, and its happiest experience will probably have been with friends from the former Republican administration instead of the Clinton White House.

At Wednesday night's reunion of the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, former President George Bush and top members of the Bush Cabinet, the heroes of Desert Storm could reflect on a historic moment in 1991 when they faced a clear threat -- Iraq -- and joined together to defeat it.

By contrast, the Saudis' four days of meetings with the current American leadership, despite an outward show of cooperation, have been dogged by unease and dissatisfaction on topics ranging from security to economics.

Arriving Monday night with a 100-member delegation, Sultan, also deputy prime minister and a brother of King Fahd, met with President Clinton for a half-hour Tuesday, held a broad session with Vice President Al Gore and a range of top officials and met separately with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

With a final Gore-Sultan meeting set for today, the visit has reaffirmed the fundamental tie: The United States depends on friendly government controlling so much Persian Gulf oil, and the Saudis need American military security. But there was little sign yesterday that the two countries had revived their past closeness.

The Persian Gulf and American forces stationed there again face a serious threat. This was evident in last June's truck bombing at the Khobar Towers military housing complex that killed 19 American soldiers, an earlier car-bombing outside a U.S. military training site in Riyadh and letter bombs that have exploded at Saudi newspaper offices here and in London. But the United States and Saudi Arabia don't agree on who is behind the threat or how to respond.

Saudi Arabia is vital to the West because it has the world's largest oil reserves, and the Persian Gulf countries are still the only ones with enough oil-pumping infrastructure to replace large gaps in the oil supply caused by disruptions elsewhere.

Doubts about bombing

The Saudis, who are Sunni Muslims, have blamed Shiite Muslim zealots inspired by Iran for the Khobar Towers bombing. But U.S. officials say they haven't been given access to all the evidence gathered by Saudi investigators and refuse to endorse the Saudis' view.

As publicly outlined, the Saudi case is circumstantial and, many analysts say, too convenient. It removes from suspicion any dissidents inside Saudi Arabia who belong to the same Sunni sect as the royal family.

"The most up-front challenge is the degree to which they're willing to share the results of their investigation -- or non-results -- with the United States," said Graham Fuller, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. and former senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. "The dilemma is that under any circumstances U.S. access [to the bombing suspects] would bring out a lot of dirty laundry that the Saudis would not want known."

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who has voiced frustration over the lack of information from the Saudis, was a guest yesterday at a State Department lunch for Sultan, but his office refused to say whether he planned to hold a working meeting with the Saudis. The man heading the Saudi probe, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, was not on the trip.

Granting full entree to American investigators would be a big departure for the Saudis.

"The Saudis believe they are cooperating and will cooperate with the United States in every respect except one. That is, to allow their own citizens to be investigated by a foreign power, because this is part and parcel of their sovereignty. Also, they believe it could have adverse internal repercussions," says Mohammed Wahby, an Egyptian analyst of Arab affairs based in Washington.

Threats to the kingdom became more complicated this week with a warning from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh of terrorist danger to the 40,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia -- not from Iran or the Shiites, but from Osama ibn Laden, a billionaire enemy of the royal family who has been stripped of Saudi citizenship and is believed to sponsor a terrorist network from his new outpost in Afghanistan.

Lacking agreement on immediate threats, the United States and Saudi Arabia also are far from united in how to combat their longer-term enemies in Iraq, Iran and extremist movements spreading through the Arab world.

Saudis have voiced fear that if the United States takes military action against Iran, it won't do so decisively, leaving Iran angered and even more of a threat to the region's stability. Instead, they want a joint long-term effort to squeeze Iran militarily and strangle it economically.

But Saudis questioned whether the United States could lead such an effort in the face of opposition from European and Asian allies who want to continue trading with Iran.

Even on Iraq, the two countries aren't on the same wavelength. While the Clinton administration has made no secret of its desire to topple President Saddam Hussein, the Saudis are concerned about the consequences, including a breakup of Iraq and a possible separate Shiite state there allied with neighboring Iran.

Situation satisfactory

Says Fuller: "The status quo looks better now. Saddam is in his box. There is much that is desirable about the present situation."

The Saudis still resist American pressure to end their direct economic boycott of Israel. The hard-line stance on Jerusalem taken by the Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has given the Saudis an added excuse for not becoming more active in the peace process, according to some analysts.

As custodians of the holiest shrines of Islam, in Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family holds a singular position in the Muslim world. It feels a powerful responsibility to protect the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, the city that Israel claims as its eternal capital.

The Saudis are also slowing up on arms purchases. Facing a cash crunch at home and criticism that the money spent on American weapons should be spent on domestic needs, the Saudis have postponed a formal request to buy 70 to 100 high-tech F-16 fighter jets built by Lockheed-Martin, a deal worth at least $5 billion.

The Saudis deny that their current budget problems reflect a long-term economic problem, but American officials increasingly see one coming in the years ahead. Despite Saudi Arabia's undeniable oil wealth, its population is growing twice as rapidly as its economy. Half its population is under age 15.

"The overall economic health of Saudi Arabia depends on stimulating growth to match, if not overtake, population growth," says a State Department official.

The Saudis are trying to diversify their economy by building up a petrochemical industry that would add value to their oil income. They're also investing "downstream" in the sales of refined oil.

They say the United States could help enormously if it paved the way for Saudi entry into the World Trade Organization. But Americans say the Saudis remain too closed to outside investment. "Foreigners can come to do business, but not to own," says a State Department official.

The long-term economic problems point to another problem that is increasingly being discussed openly in Washington: an apparent growing gulf between the royal family and the majority of Saudi citizens.

Even if Washington turned a blind eye to the regime's discrimination against women and non-Muslims and its documented abuses of human rights, the royal family's system of governing through informal consultation no longer is seen to work as well as it once did.

"They need to develop a new system for political participation," says Patrick Clawsen, an economist at National Defense University who closely follows Persian Gulf affairs.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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