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Suicide bombings put pressure on strained U.S.-Saudi ties


WASHINGTON - The suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia this week have added new strains to a U.S.-Saudi relationship that has been under pressure for two years as a result of the U.S.-led war on terror and deep disagreements over Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The U.S. ambassador to the kingdom complained yesterday that Saudi authorities had failed to bolster their protection of Western residential sites in the kingdom, despite U.S. requests after threats of a terrorist attack had come to light.

"As soon as we learned of this particular threat information, we contacted the Saudi government," the envoy, Robert Jordan, said on CBS' The Early Show. "We continue to work with the Saudis on this, but they did not, as of the time of this tragic event, provide the additional security we requested."

Until Jordan spoke, U.S. officials had almost uniformly praised Saudi cooperation, both in fighting al-Qaida and in cracking down on the financing of Islamist terror groups that operated under the guise of charities.

"We think ... that we're really heading in the right direction here," Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism chief, told reporters late last month. But Black's assessment was not shared by some on Capitol Hill who have closely followed the battle against al-Qaida.

On CNN yesterday, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a Democratic presidential candidate, described the Saudis as "an uneven and unpredictable ally in the war against terror."

Beneath the tensions lies a series of contradictions troubling relations between the world's only superpower and the oil-rich kingdom. Now, those contradictions are being exposed even more sharply as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

For more than six decades, except for a break during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, the Saudi royal family cultivated friendships and close strategic ties with American presidents. The arrangement brought American military protection for the Saudis, in exchange for a steady supply of oil to the West at stable prices. The longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is a close friend of the Bushes.

During the 1980s, the Saudis helped fund U.S. anti-Communist covert operations and split the cost of a war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan - a war that, in turn, helped spawn a generation of violent extremists, including Osama bin Laden.

This strategic cooperation deepened after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. The United States dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia, first to prevent Saddam Hussein from attacking the kingdom and then to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The presence of U.S. troops in the land of Islam's holiest shrines enraged bin Laden and his followers, fueling a terror war that culminated in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Despite this, Saudi rulers quietly cooperated with the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, allowing U.S. warplanes to attack Iraqi forces from bases in the kingdom. They did so even though they, and most of the Saudi public, opposed the war.

Anti-Western rage

But outside the royal family and a small elite educated in the United States and Europe, Saudi society seethes with anti-Western rage. Much of it is directed at the presence of American forces in the country. As the suicide attacks Monday showed, Saudi extremists were not appeased by the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the United States would be withdrawing 5,000 troops from the country.

This resentment has been encouraged by a rigid Muslim religious hierarchy that is given broad latitude to enforce controls over dress and a wide range of public conduct. The Western enclaves that were struck by the suicide bombers this week - gated communities where women need not wear veils and where the usual Saudi rules are relaxed - exposed this dichotomy.

Fueling anti-Western attitudes in the broader population has been what Saudis and most of the Arab world see as the United States' one-sided stance in favor of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

One of the targets of the attacks Monday was a symbol of the delicate balancing act performed by the Saudi monarchy: a housing complex used by personnel of an American company under contract to the Saudi National Guard, a domestic security organization commanded by Crown Prince Abdullah.

For years, critics charge, Saudi authorities turned a blind eye to financial support for anti-Western extremists, allowing money to flow through Muslim charities to terrorist groups, as long as those groups launched no attacks inside the kingdom.

They also resisted U.S. efforts to investigate terrorist groups inside Saudi Arabia, drawing criticism from the FBI. For their part, the Saudis viewed the FBI as heavy-handed.

This Saudi attitude shifted after the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 out of 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi citizens. The attacks, which were condemned by the Saudi leadership and senior religious and legal figures in the kingdom, forced the government to recognize that its failure to track young extremists had aided international terrorism.

More than a year later, the Saudis were embarrassed anew by disclosures that checks sent by Prince Bandar's wife to help a fellow Saudi women pay for medical aid had been diverted to the family of one of the Sept. 11 terrorists.

Still, the changes in the Saudi approach to terrorism were illustrated May 6, when Saudi authorities raided a house in Riyadh used by what might have been the terror cell that committed Monday's car bombings. In an unusual move, the Saudi government publicly identified the cell members who had escaped and asked for help in tracking them.

But some in the Saudi leadership - among them, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz - have been slow to change, analysts say.

"Prince Nayef is a major problem," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He is so senior, he cannot be challenged, but he tends to deal with threats in terms of denial, has refused to see how serious the threat of Islamic extremism is and has failed to modernize the internal security system."

The foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, acknowledged yesterday that more needs to be done on security: "The fact that the terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings, and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect," he said at a news conference.

The inquiry into this week's attacks marks a new test of the Saudis' ability to wage a relentless war on terrorism.

"Unless they take this as an opportunity to turn the corner and engage in a much more responsible and comprehensive war on all aspects of terrorism, including financing and logistical support, whatever they do will be ineffective," said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

'Work more sensitively'

But it will be a test, as well, of the ability of U.S. investigators, including FBI agents and a team from the State Department's diplomatic security service, to work with the Saudis without inflaming anti-Western sentiment in the population.

"The FBI needs to understand that it does not have jurisdiction outside the United States," said Chas W. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "They will have to work more sensitively than has often been the case in the past if they want to be successful."

The attack, which killed Saudis and Americans, could result, Freeman said, in a "sobering up of the publics on both sides" that draws the two nations closer.

But this increased cooperation, if it happens, will occur against the backdrop of shrinking commercial ties, travel and exchanges between the two countries as a result of the greater difficulty Saudis face in getting visas to the United States since Sept. 11.

And even if the two countries work well together on counterterrorism, events in Iraq could highlight other contradictions in the relationship. Some Washington hawks see the ouster of Hussein and his replacement by a regime friendly to the United States as a way to reduce Western dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia.

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