The Saudi mystery

September 07, 2004|By Richard O'Mara

HAVING FINALLY seen Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, with its suggestion of a sinister relationship between the royals of Saudi Arabia and the family that gave this nation its current president, I thought of my late brother, Edward. As a young man, he went to live in the desert kingdom, married there, raised two children, then 23 years later came home and gave me the impression he never thoroughly understood the country where he had spent a third of his lifetime.

This was not his fault. My brother was not unperceptive. He was curious, read a lot of history. He accumulated far more knowledge of Saudi Arabia than that enjoyed by 99 percent of his compatriots. But he was defeated, as so many others were, by a myriad of strategies to discourage contact between Saudis and outsiders, especially the Westerners hired to help exploit the oilfields.

Edward caused a stir when he came home one day in 1951 and told my parents he had landed a job with the Arabian American Oil Company - Aramco, as it is known. He had already spent three years in Japan with the Air Force, and had been to many other places. But I could think of no destination so exotic, so utterly primitive, as the one before him.

My brother's answers to my queries about life in the kingdom, which I heaped upon him during home visits, always conveyed a manifest weariness. Perhaps he found my questions naive. But I also think his inability to penetrate the culture he was surrounded by transformed his natural curiosity into a sad resignation.

Edward did have some Saudi friends, acquaintances in the workplace. He also traveled some in the country, to Riyadh and Hufuf, even into the interior, the Empty Quarter, with the oil crews. Of course, Mecca and Medina were always off limits, and much more. Nearly all the Americans and Europeans were relegated to a fenced town called Dhahran, on the Persian Gulf. Everybody had a house and air conditioning; there were swimming pools, beaches, tennis courts, other amenities. Dhahran seemed a middle-class Utopia.

In 1996, Dhahran was brought to the world's attention when a terrorist bomb killed 19 American soldiers in the nearby Khobar Towers. There were no American troops around when my brother lived there. In the aftermath, Saudi authorities were less than helpful to American investigators on the case, indicating their continuing obsession with secrecy.

There have been many hermit states through history: China, Japan, Albania under Enver Hoxha. Contemporary North Korea is a perfect example. Most of the Soviet Union remained closed for all the years it existed, and to the end the Soviets had managed to keep the biggest secret of all: the rot that brought about the collapse.

Michael Moore has been denounced and praised for his film. But, oddly, not many critics have made much of the footage highlighting the rush by the Bush administration to spirit the family of Osama bin Laden from our country right after 9/11. Nor has there been much reporting on it, or comment from the punditry.

This is odd, if only because most other elements related to the attack have been investigated: intelligence failures, false evidence and specious justifications for the war on Iraq, torture in American-run military prisons and other scandals. Probes have been carried out by congressional committees, the Pentagon and the independent 9/11 commission. But the details surrounding the bin Ladens' escape from Washington seem to have been obscured by the fog of war.

Ignorance of Saudi Arabia isn't as abysmal as it was in my brother's day, when few Americans could even find it on the map. Yet it remains profound. We can be sure of very little about this shadow state. It does not like resident Western journalists. It's certainly not a democracy. Some describe it as a creaky monarchy struggling to modernize. Others, such as the Israeli author of Hatred's Kingdom, Dore Gold, see it as the covert sponsor of all the world's Islamic terrorism.

Both Democrat and Republican administrations have assured the American people that our continued economic health is contingent upon Saudi Arabia's stability. It is a friend, they say, in a hostile part of the world. That's comforting. What is not is the knowledge that the 9/11 attacks were the work of a scion of one of the pre-eminent families in Saudi Arabia, a family evidently favored by the Bush administration. And we know also that 15 of the 19 hijackers who executed the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens.

As they say, with friends like that ...

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.

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