A fix that won't stick

September 02, 2002

THE HOUSE OF SAUD has an image problem. But it's nothing millions of American dollars can't fix. Or so the royal family hoped.

Dogged by continued references to the nationality of the Sept. 11 hijackers, the government has financed an effort to dispel the impression that it tolerates (or cultivates) terrorists and exports them.

Saudi Arabia has always been viewed as a secretive society, a remote desert kingdom characterized as much by the veil that shields the faces of its women as the barrels of black crude it produces. For 60 years, the Saudis have preferred to conduct their relations with the United States on a personal level, with the political elite and the politically powerful who are their friends.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Saudis have been relying on influential lobbyists, image consultants and the mass media to explain that they are on the right side of the war on terror. They have even considered presenting the Saudi-owned Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, War Emblem, as a gift to victims' families - an unseemly gesture that emphasizes how desperate this campaign is.

The Saudis want the American people to understand that they had nothing to do with the 15 fanatics who turned jetliners into missiles of mass destruction. They don't want Americans to view all Saudis as they view Osama bin Laden, the renegade son of a Saudi construction magnate and mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

There's no question that Saudi Arabia is a strategic Middle East ally for U.S. interests in the oil market, defense capabilities and regional stability. President Bush reinforces the importance of that relationship when he invites Saudi princes to his sprawling ranch in Texas for a private visit.

But the Saudi government also must understand that all the television commercials can't explain away its support of religious schools that foment an extremist form of Islam, its rewards for families of Palestinian militants, its indifference toward anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric in its media.

Therein lies its potential complicity in the events of Sept. 11. A lawsuit filed by families of 600 Sept. 11 victims seeks to prove that complicity and seeks retribution for it. It alleges that three well-known members of the royal family, a group of international banks, eight Islamic charities and the government of Sudan had a more direct relationship to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

What matters here is not so much America's perception of Saudi Arabia, but the attitude of the Saudi people toward America, the feelings and beliefs that would compel young men to crash airplanes into buildings. That's what Americans need to understand.

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