Sleeping with the enemy - Simon Tisdall examines the possible motives for US appeasement of Saudi Arabia (GUARDIAN UK) 11/28/02)
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This week´s furious row over US allegations of a link between the
Saudi royal family and the terrorists of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden´s
al-Qaida gang has highlighted a deep fault-line in the Bush
administration´s "war on terror".
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, says he
is "outraged" by suggestions that charitable donations made by his
wife may have ended up with two men allegedly associated with the
September 11 hijackers. But that has not prevented some barbed US
political attacks on the Saudi government, even before an FBI inquiry
The Saudis have "played a duplicitous game", says US senator Charles
Schumer, by effectively buying off terrorists and turning a blind eye
to their activities. Richard Lugar, the incoming chairman of the
senate foreign relations committee, says "disturbing issues" have
been raised, and that the US must insist on a Saudi crackdown on
This is but the latest in a series of public spats that began after
September 11, when the US discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were
Saudis and that al-Qaida´s operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and
elsewhere appeared to have been financed with monies emanating from
the desert kingdom.
American accusations of official or unofficial Saudi complicity in
terrorism have ebbed and flowed ever since, usually channelled
through the US media. After the Bali bombing, for instance, there
were reports that a Saudi businessman helped finance the atrocity.
Even the august New York Times has joined in. "One of the disturbing
realities clarified by last month´s attacks is Saudi Arabia´s
tolerance for terrorism," the paper said in October last year. "With
Riyadh´s acquiescence, money and manpower from Saudi Arabia helped
create and sustain Osama bin Laden´s terrorist organisation." One
well-known American columnist, reflecting a tide of anti-Saudi
feeling, has even urged George Bush to invade Saudi Arabia and turn
it into a giant US "self-serve gas pump".
The attacks on the Saudis often seemed to be based on US intelligence
and other information leaked by American officials concerned that not
enough is being done by their own government. Last summer, an
explosive classified intelligence briefing to the Pentagon´s defence
advisory board was surreptitiously made public.
"The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from
planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist
to cheerleader," the report stated. It described the kingdom as "the
kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" that
the US faced anywhere in the Middle East. "Saudi Arabia supports out
enemies and attacks our allies".
As the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, quickly pointed out at
the time, the report did not reflect official US policy. Indeed, each
flurry of anti-Saudi agitation in the US has usually been followed by
placatory and conciliatory statements from the Bush administration.
Last autumn, Ari Fleischer, George Bush´s chief spokesman, said the
president was "very pleased with the kingdom´s contributions" to the
war on terror. This week, after the latest row, Fleischer repeated
himself. "The president believes that Saudi Arabia has been a good
partner," he said, although he added that it "can do more".
Earlier this year, Bush afforded Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the
country´s de facto ruler, the signal honour of an invitation to his
Texas ranch, and listened attentively to his ideas about a
Palestinian-Israeli settlement. At one point last August, Bush
assured Bin Sultan of the two countries´ "eternal friendship".
The US also downplays Saudi Arabia´s appalling human rights abuses,
its lack of democratic freedoms and of a free press, and its denial
of women´s rights - all key justifications, by the way, proffered for
the US overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Speaking during a visit to Mexico this week, the US secretary of
state, Colin Powell, again went out of his way to coddle the Saudi
princes. Concerns about terrorism, he said, should not lead the
US "to the point where we rupture relations with a country that has
been a good friend". This is actually quite amazing, if US reactions
to other countries in similar circumstances are considered. If the
state in question were Iran, for example, it would probably have been
attacked by now.
This smacks of appeasement. So what is really going on here?
Why, in its ruthless pursuit of the September 11 murderers and their
supporters - a chase that has encompassed most of the Middle East and
south and south-east Asia - is the Bush administration so loath to
confront the Saudis?
Why, if there is persuasive evidence of Saudi complicity in those and
subsequent attacks, has stern action (such as sanctions or trade
embargoes) not been taken, or at least formal, public diplomatic
Why indeed is the current focus of US military and diplomatic efforts
on Baghdad, not Riyadh? Why, in other words, does Bush, not known for
being a man who bites his lip when it comes to terrorism, look at the
Saudis and turn the other cheek?
Well, the answer could be that all these anti-Saudi allegations are
foul and unjustified calumnies for which there is not a shred of
evidence. But if you believe that, you can stop reading right here
(and maybe seek professional help).
Or it could be that, sad to say, the Bush administration is operating
a double standard. It could be that the US government is only too
aware of the Saudi terror connection, but is not prosecuting it
vigorously on behalf of the September 11 victims and the American
people because it has other priorities.
What might they be? One easy answer is oil. Saudi Arabia provides 17%
of daily US oil needs and, more important in strategic terms,
controls about 25% of global reserves. Despite attempts to diversify
America´s supply, US dependence on Persian Gulf oil is projected to
increase, not decrease, in the next 20 years.
All major production increases in that period are also expected to
come in and around the Gulf; Saudi Arabia is the only producer with
enough spare capacity to keep the world market stable and prevent
price "spikes" in times of crisis. Without Saudi Arabia, it is no
exaggeration to say the US economic motor could quickly conk out.
Another priority is Israel. Without US protection, military aid and
financial backing, Israel´s very existence would be in continuing
doubt. As it is, with the rulers of Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and
Jordan) on America´s diplomatic team, the enmity of rejectionist
Arabs and hardliners in Iran can be kept at bay and the illusion of a
peace process maintained.
This also means that Israel´s current government, led by Bush friend
and ally Ariel Sharon, can continue its repression of the
Palestinians almost with impunity. This is why Bush listened politely
to Abdullah´s peace plan in Texas (and then held out the prospect of
a Palestinian state one distant day). The US needs to keep the Saudis
sweet if a lid is to be kept on the intifada, and if Jewish
interests, in Israel and the US, are to be maintained.
Another priority is Iraq. The US has large military bases in Saudi
Arabia and will want to use them in any attack on Iraq. Whether or
not it gets permission to do so, it still needs to keep the Saudis on
board during a war. If the Saudis, guardians of Mecca and the holy
shrines and the heartland of Islam, made a stand against war, the
peoples of the whole Gulf region and Egypt and Jordan might follow in
opposing the US and its allies. It would not just be a military
logistics problem then.
Like Bush, the Saudis have a score to settle with Saddam Hussein.
They fear him for what he did in 1990 and might, one day, do again.
They want him gone. And let us not forget: Iraq´s oil is important,
too. It has 11% of known world reserves and (even now) the US
continues to be the biggest single purchaser of Iraqi oil. The US and
Saudi governments have a shared economic interest in, shall we say,
regulating that supply. The US will also need help in paying for any
war and subsequent occupation.
There are other reasons, too, for the Bush administration´s
appeasement of the Saudis. One is the concern that the weak Saudi
monarchy, while objectionable in many ways, could be replaced by
something far worse - such as an Islamist fundamentalist regime of
the type that seized power in Iran in 1979. Better the devil you
know, as they say in Christendom, than the devil you don´t.
So, for the sake of all of the above, it appears that - when it comes
to Saudi Arabia - the Bush administration is fighting its "war on
terror" with its right hand tied behind its back, its left eye
closed, and shackles round its ankles. But those constraints are
entirely self-imposed. It is for the American people to judge whether
this is a wise or honourable policy and whether, in Bush´s endlessly
repeated phrase, it truly serves "freedom´s cause".
(Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002 11/28/02)
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