Reading the Saudi king's mind

William Safire

May 30, 1991|By William Safire

THE AMERICANS have proven themselves to be loyal friends of my family and my kingdom, but I fear they will never understand us.

They act as if the problem of the Palestinians is high on our list of concerns. Why? Of course I must show public respect to my Arab brethren, and side with them against the Jews, but we have seen that the interests of the PLO are not my interests.

An example. On Feb. 4, halfway between the beginning of the air war and the start of the ground war, terrorists attacked a minibus in the streets of Jidda. One of my subjects and two American soldiers were injured from the shattered glass.

I directed Majid, emir of Jidda, to find out who was responsible, because the world expected Saddam Hussein, may his name be erased from all monuments, to respond to the coalition air attack.

The emir called in his good friend, Afif Masoud, Fatah's leader in Jidda, to find out who fired the gun at the Americans and at whose behest. After interrogation, the PLO leader, who likes to go by the name of Jihad al-Yahudi, confessed he had sent his men -- one an employee of the Palestinian embassy in Riyadh -- to kill a couple of Americans on the direct orders of Yasser Arafat.

The Americans wanted to make public the news of this attack on their men, but we knew better. Instead, we sent word to Arafat's Fatah that if one more attack took place, we would do the same to the Palestinians who live in the kingdom as we were doing to the Yemeni who worked and lived here: deport them.

The Yemeni lesson was a severe one. Yemen had supported Saddam's war against us; in return, we stopped treating Yemenis resident in our kingdom with the same respect as our own subjects. As a result, a third of our two million Yemenis (not a half -- that is an exaggeration by the few Westerners who noticed) Yemenis found it necessary to leave. They will not return; the work they did will be done by Saudis, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Moroccans.

It was not a formal expulsion, of course; the 700,000 Yemenis left because they could no longer work and would otherwise starve. We were prepared to do the same with the Palestinians and the blame would have fallen on Arafat.

My friends the Americans still wonder why there were no more terrorist attacks, especially on the vulnerable loading docks at Dhahran. The reason was that we know how to deal with the


Secretary of State Baker is afflicted with the notion that our diplomatic position about the Palestinian question is our real position. I much prefer to deal on more important matters with General Scowcroft, who President Bush sent to me last month as his personal envoy, and who we remember was much more realistic about Saddam than Baker.

The secretary of state wants me to persuade Syria to let Hussein of Jordan lead the Palestinians at the peace conference. All along, the king has been explaining that his support of Saddam helped him "build credibility" with the Palestinians. OK, now he built it -- let him deliver.

The secretary spends a few hours in Damascus and runs, but Scowcroft knows that Kissinger spent 33 days with Assad to get some movement. And Baker asks me to announce an end to the boycott and publicly end our refusal to honor passports that contain evidence of trips to Israel. He should know that is not the way such things are done.

One day, one company doing Israeli business will quietly get a Saudi contract; another will not. One day, a congressman who voted with the president to join the defense of Saudi Arabia will find his passport stamped and the page with the Israeli stamp ignored; another will be turned away. We will change our policy while denying our policy is changed; that is the way of the Middle East.

I am more concerned with stability within the kingdom than with peace outside. During the war, 250,000 Kuwaitis were scattered among our families, telling terrible stories of murder and dishonor by our Arab brethren; Saudis know they need America's protection. We can work out ways to pay for it.

Steady persuasion, perhaps a full-time envoy with an understanding of our ways -- this may lead to a partial answer to the mass-destruction issue, the Israeli question, the Palestinians. If only the impatient Americans understood us.

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