For President Bush and King Fahd, domestic concerns loom large

November 21, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- When President Bush arrives tonight in Saudi Arabia, his presence will highlight dramatic changes in the kingdom's relationship with the United States and in Mr. Bush's ability to win public support for the military buildup against Iraq.

Mr. Bush and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia are counting on the trip to silence domestic critics, who in both countries focus their complaints on potential consequences from the deployment of more than 230,000 U.S. troops in the Saudi desert.

For King Fahd, the U.S. military presence is the main protection against Iraq and also a source of anxiety. His regime is unsettled by complaints from conservative religious leaders that the Western presence threatens to corrupt a society governed according to Islamic law.

For Mr. Bush, the most important parts of his stay are the Thanksgiving Day visits to U.S. troops in the desert and to at least one Navy warship in the Persian Gulf -- and the television images beamed back to the United States.

The White House is counting on pictures of soldiers sharing a Thanksgiving meal with their commander in chief to stop a slide in support for the deployment. Mr. Bush is also counting on those pictures to reassure Congress that he will not order the troops into action in an all-out war to undo Iraq's occupation of Kuwait except as a last resort.

The pictures are likely to be the chief substance of the president's visit, outweighing in importance his meetings with the king and with Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the deposed emir of Kuwait. "If it was just to see the king," a U.S. official said, "I don't think the visit would be considered essential."

Mr. Bush will be juggling domestic concerns with the concerns of the alliance of Arab states.

King Fahd, according to Saudi officials and diplomats, will want reassurances that U.S. policies remain unchanged, even though the king met less than three weeks ago with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Since that meeting, the Saudis have been startled by congressional criticism of the U.S. military buildup. In a society that has no experience with democracy, voices of dissent are difficult to interpret.

"We are very worried by what goes on in the Congress," said Abdullah Kabbaa, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh.

"It is a different system, but Bush needs the support of everyone."

The king is to welcome Mr. Bush when the president flies from Paris to Jidda, on the Red Sea coast, and will be his host at a dinner and in private talks. Their session will underscore the new closeness between the two countries, an intimacy that the Saudi regime both welcomes and fears.

Saudi Arabia used to insist on keeping most aspects of its relationship with the United States out of public view, for fear of offending the religious establishment or its neighbors, including

Iraq and Iran; U.S. military advisers were here but rarely seen.

But when the king decided to depend on U.S. troops for protection, any chance of maintaining secrecy disappeared.

As a result, the arrival of the Americans has been no less momentous for the regime than the Iraqi invasion that made their presence necessary.

"I don't think Americans have understood how enormous the decision was for Fahd," a Western diplomat said.

"It has caused the Saudis a lot of discomfort."

Inviting a large foreign military presence ended any pretense that the kingdom's wealth could buy isolation from the non-Arab world.

At the same time, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait showed that wealth could not guarantee Saudi Arabia friendship even with other Arabs.

Inviting a public U.S. presence also invited a conservative backlash, which has already begun.

But many liberals and conservatives are convinced that Mr. Bush's visit is another sign that the kingdom has little choice but to be more closely tied to the West.

To maintain its standard of living, Saudi Arabia must sell oil at a price nations can afford, and the main consumers will continue to be the industrialized nations of the West.

"Oil is very important for us to sell, and we have to sell it to the West," a liberal academic said. "Because our interest is tied to the West, and the West is democratic, we'll move more toward democratic ways."

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