Saudis beset by faith, oil, politics

Helping U.S. risks domestic instability

October 20, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The aged rulers of Saudi Arabia, America's most important ally in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, are enduring their worst crisis in a decade, trapped between resentment in the United States and unease among their own people.

Perceived Saudi reluctance to cooperate fully with U.S.-led military assaults on Afghanistan and foot-dragging on investigations into the Sept. 11 terror attacks have drawn the heaviest criticism from Capitol Hill and the American press since before the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which united the United States and Saudi Arabia in a war against Iraq.

At home, the Saudi leadership faces opposition to assisting the United States in its war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and anxiety over treatment of Saudi citizens and other Muslims in the United States.

Meanwhile, falling world prices for oil, the kingdom's chief revenue source, have aggravated economic problems at a time when an expanding, increasingly youthful population has seen its standard of living fall and future become bleaker.

The crisis comes as the House of Saud, which has ruled the country since the 1930s, faces the possibility that its top leadership could change hands several times in quick succession in coming years. King Fahd, 80, is reported to be incapacitated from ill health. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler, is 78, and the next in line, defense minister Prince Sultan, is 77.

Since the kingdom both controls the world's largest known oil reserves and is custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines, instability there would send shock waves throughout the Middle East and every industrial oil-importing nation.

Saudi watchers doubt it will get that bad. "I don't think the House of Saud is under mortal threat, but this is a crisis, and at the moment they don't appear to be handling it well," said Simon Henderson, a British business consultant who specializes in Saudi Arabia.

But compared to two previous major challenges - in 1979, when radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and 1990, when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait and posed a major threat to the kingdom - the choices now facing Saudi rulers are more difficult, Henderson said: "They give the appearance of being, rather than in control, in denial."

By virtue of its oil wealth and importance in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia sits astride some of the most important fault lines of American foreign policy and Middle East politics.

For Washington, it occupies the almost unique position of being an ally and a vital contributor to American and Western prosperity. It is also one of the main Arab states that has yet to reach a peace agreement with another U.S. ally, Israel, which depends heavily on American support.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia epitomizes both a wealthy, dictatorial, Western-aligned elite that Osama bin Laden and like-minded violent militants aim to destroy, and deeply conservative Muslim traditions that are far removed from the secular lifestyles of many Arabs.

All these contradictions have resurfaced in the weeks since jets slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

While joining in worldwide condemnation of the attacks and pledging to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States in the war on terrorism, Saudi Arabia has displayed difficulty in coming to grips with the terrorists' links to the kingdom and how it should support U.S. retaliation.

"We're not dismissing that there were Saudis involved" in the hijacking, a Saudi Embassy official said this week. In fact, at least eight Saudis were among the hijackers. "We're fully committed to finding the people behind the [attacks on] the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," the official said, adding that Saudis want to "do it quietly."

Saudis are similarly cautious in pursuing possible bin Laden money sources in Muslim charities in the kingdom, where financial privacy and charitable giving are bound by tradition. They have sent high-ranking monetary officials here to help with the investigation, but the embassy official said, "We want to know how the names got on the list. Is there proof?"

Saudis have allowed U.S. warplanes to fly over the kingdom from bases elsewhere but, fearing a domestic backlash, have refused to allow U.S. aircraft based in the kingdom to attack targets in Afghanistan. They have repeatedly voiced concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. And they have been at the forefront of recent demands that the United States intervene to bring an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

President Bush has insisted he is satisfied with Saudi cooperation. But this week, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns hinted at a Capitol Hill hearing that Saudi help was not all it should be.

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