A kingdom sees itself as victim

SUN JOURNAL

Blame: Saudis say the U.S. media have unfairly cast them as villains in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

January 19, 2002|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Sheik Mohammed bin Jubeir sits comfortably on a silk-covered couch in his gold-trimmed robe and reflects on the pain Saudi Arabia has endured. Victim is the word he uses. The oil-rich desert kingdom is a victim.

"I would like to assure you," bin Jubeir says, "Saudi Arabia has been a victim. No society in the world is a perfect society. There must be negatives in each society."

Bin Jubeir is the chairman of the Consultative Council, the nation's appointed legislature. But if bin Jubeir's position puts him near the top of the power structure here, his thoughts on victimization are as common as the country's love of American fast food.

Four months after the attacks that led the United States to declare war on terrorism, the people of this capital - college students, members of the military, businesspeople, minority groups, academics - are united in their belief that the American media and people have unfairly and incorrectly lashed out at Saudi Arabia.

Across the capital, there is a consensus that Americans have blamed this nation of 22 million people for fostering terrorists when, Saudis believe, it is U.S. support for Israel that is to blame.

"We feel we are suffering from a lack of knowledge - or there is an intentional effort of deforming the facts," says Abdelaziz bin Salman, a former ambassador to UNESCO. "How can you explain to an average citizen this blind support for a criminal like [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon? This is not understandable to us."

At the highest levels of government there is an acceptance that as many as 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And officially, the government says it has no doubt that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. But those sentiments remain tempered for many people here, such as bin Jubeir, who argue that the United States has given no proof on the identity of the hijackers or the Saudi militants' involvement.

In a country that stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994, there are still some, such as one military officer, who wonder whether "Hollywood produced" the video in which bin Laden suggests that he had advance knowledge of the attacks.

"We have nothing to show from the United States," bin Jubeir says regarding the identity of the hijackers. "All we hear from the U.S. are accusations. No proof."

And regarding bin Laden, he says: "Through what has been published and through the satellite channels, we could think that bin Laden was responsible. But there is nothing definite."

After the September attacks and the discovery that Saudi nationals were involved, there was a sense among many Americans that the kingdom was double-dealing: serving as a U.S. ally in its campaign against Iraq while churning out and supporting an army of religious extremists who are the backbone of bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Though the Saudi government says it did not give money to the Taliban in Afghanistan, wealthy Saudis are believed to have contributed to bin Laden.

But as Americans have been reluctant to publicly re-evaluate their own foreign policy actions in the context of Sept. 11, not wanting to appear to reward terrorism by addressing its demands, Saudis have been reluctant to look anew at their own society in the context of the American scrutiny. Sure, there are social, economic and political problems here, they say. But there is no way the Saudi regime or citizens are going to agree that their religion-based system is somehow at fault.

Although it might sound outlandish to Americans, the feelings here four months after the attacks are as raw as in the United States. It is as though the doors were blown open on a family squabble and those inside are still shocked at what the neighbors are saying about what they saw. The events of Sept. 11 have forced a degree of introspection and soul-searching on this society - but only, it seems, at the highest level of government, or perhaps in quiet moments for individuals.

"When I am by myself, I ask myself, why do I hate Israel? I know it is because they taught me in the schools to hate Israel," says a professional who, like many people here, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the government or religious authorities.

The government, for its part, reviewed its school curriculum to see if it is, as some Americans have charged, promoting intolerance.

"We examined our curriculum because people thought in our curriculum we were creating a residue of hate," says a businessman with close ties to the government. "We found to the contrary, that our curriculum is like any other country."

But, he adds, "We further dug in, and we found teachers who might have expanded on teaching their hostility and frustration against policies vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue. This, of course, resulted in some kind of anger transferred to the students."

But this allowance, no matter how minor, that Saudi society might bear even a fraction of responsibility, is the exception.

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