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

February 28, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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