U.S.-Saudi ties must be rebuilt

September 08, 2002|By Marc Ginsberg

WASHINGTON -- Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, had a family-style get-together with President Bush down at the Western White House, a conciliatory meeting intended to soothe a strained marriage between the two countries.

Although President Bush sought to dampen Saudi opposition to a pre-emptive attack on Saddam Hussein, the reaction from Riyadh -- America's oldest Arab ally -- was "no sale."

Despite the Saudi brush-off, the Bush administration seems intent to sweep U.S.-Saudi disagreements under some magic carpet and maintain the veneer of amity. But that veneer is increasingly looking like a mirage.

Based on a diplomatic balance sheet, the Saudis are living on expired credit.

To wit, the Saudis are flirting with two of the so-called "axis of evil" countries: Iraq and Iran. They do not believe that a weakened Mr. Hussein poses a threat to the region, and the Saudis remain staunch defenders of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and fund the families of suicide bombers.

Moreover, the al-Saud royal family appears to be paralyzed when it comes to ending the flow of protection and blood money funding Islamic radicals and their global institutions.

The Saudis are equally angry and frustrated. They would consider an attack on Iraq to be the opening salvo of a U.S. effort to reshape the Middle East and end its alliance with Saudi Arabia, its oil no longer critical to the United States should the United States gain control of Iraq's oil reserves. They resent American indifference to Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinian people.

A recently filed trillion-dollar terror victim lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, several members of the royal family and others has convinced the Saudis that the United States is behind an international smear campaign to discredit the royal family.

Given America's stakes in the Middle East, the United States and Saudi Arabia have to figure out a way to sustain their ties. Why? Because isolating Riyadh carries a high price for Washington. Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist Islamic state whose population appears to be growing more radical by the day. The only institution that stands in the way of a theocracy is the al-Saud royal family.

What would we do if Osama bin Laden's dream of overthrowing the royal family were realized and his followers had unfettered access to the kingdom's wealth?

What if a new, more radical Saudi regime became a potent military threat to Israel and our oil supplies elsewhere in the Persian Gulf? That is what bin Laden's attack against America was all about -- to cause us to retreat from the region and end our ties to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Despite all of the growing hostility and anger between our two countries, there is too much at stake in the long run.

A new bilateral structure should be established that would focus high-level attention on the issues that now divide us, such as a U.S.-Saudi joint commission that would set specific benchmarks for resolving the issues that divide us.

For their part, if the Saudis are truly interested in restoring the American people's confidence in this relationship as we approach the commemoration of Sept. 11, here are Ten Commandments to Better Ties they should adopt forthwith:

End Saudi public and private support and funding of extremist Islamic groups and extremist religious institutions worldwide. There must be an absolute cessation of support to the remnants of al-Qaida.

Reconsider opposition to U.S. efforts to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and end Mr. Hussein's reign of tyranny.

End anti-American and anti-Semitic diatribes in the government-controlled press.

Permit innocent U.S. citizens held in Saudi Arabia against their will to leave.

Cooperate with U.S. intelligence and criminal investigators to unravel the Khobar Towers and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Publicly acknowledge that Saudi citizens were directly responsible for Sept. 11.

Launch a public diplomacy campaign internally to undermine bin Laden's standing among the Saudi people.

Increase Saudi oil production to offset the so-called "war premium" that Americans are now paying for gasoline.

End financial and material support for terrorist groups engaged in suicide attacks against Israel.

Commit not to divest its investments in the United States as an economic weapon to protest disagreements with Washington.

Marc Ginsberg was U.S. ambassador to Morocco from 1994 to 1998 and President Jimmy Carter's deputy senior adviser for Middle East policy from 1979 to 1981. He is CEO of a Washington investment financing company.

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