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U.S./Saudi Arabia: War Of Words Underscores Tensions Between The Two Countries

  • Charles Recknagel

In the aftermath of 11 September, the U.S. media and Saudi officials have engaged in highly public, tit-for-tat recriminations. Many American editorialists, and some U.S. legislators, have accused Riyadh of being too reticent in the war on terrorism. In response, Saudi leaders have said the war on terrorism is being undermined by the U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the war of words has grown, it has prompted debate over the future of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

Prague, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The American media debate over U.S.-Saudi ties began shortly after the events of 11 September, when it was learned that 15 Saudi citizens had joined four other Arabs in the suicide hijackings targeting the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

Initially, the press debate centered on criticism of Riyadh for its reluctance to acknowledge the key role of Saudi nationals in carrying out the attacks. But those complaints quickly broadened to charges that the Saudi royal family was being less than zealous in tracking down suspected terrorists and their sources of funding inside the kingdom.

The criticism grew further when Riyadh balked at letting U.S. forces fly missions against Afghanistan from Saudi soil, saying it could not participate in attacks on a brother Muslim country. The fact that Riyadh later quietly allowed use of the joint U.S.-Saudi Prince Sultan air base near the capital for Afghan-related command-and-control operations did little to dissuade its critics.

Soon, Saudi officials began launching vigorous counterattacks. "The Washington Post" quoted an unidentified official as saying in mid-January that Saudi rulers felt the United States had overstayed its welcome and that its forces had become a political liability. That prompted U.S. Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to say the U.S. should consider moving its forces out of the kingdom. Levin said: "We need a base in that region, but it seems to me that we should find a place that is more hospitable."

As the debate has shown no signs of ending, U.S. and Saudi officials have sought to contain it.

In late October, U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, who has been Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler since King Fahd was incapacitated by illnesses in the mid-1990s. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that, in the call, Bush "noted that he is very pleased with the kingdom's contributions" to the war on terror.

More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell discounted any talk of removing U.S. troops from the kingdom. He told reporters in late January that Washington has received "no eviction notice [or] warning of an eviction notice" for the troops from Riyadh.

Similarly, Abdullah said in rare interview with U.S. journalists in January that there is "no change in any fields at all" in U.S.-Saudi ties. He added, however, that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is being undermined by what he called the "indefensible" U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The continuing high-profile debate over U.S.-Saudi relations has led many observers to wonder to what extent it is being driven by rhetoric and to what extent it reflects real tensions between the governments.

David Long is a retired U.S. diplomat and expert on U.S.-Saudi relations and Gulf security. Speaking by telephone from Washington, D.C., he told RFE/RL that he views the spat as an unofficial war of words.

"It is at present a war of words. There was some shock and pique on the side of the Saudis at the media attacks -- as they saw them -- early after 11 September, which they saw as attacks on them. And they were piqued, and it has sort of picked up," Long said. "I don't think it at present has anything to do with official relations, which so far as I know have been trying to go on smoothly despite the war of words."

Long says both governments remain committed to maintaining a strategic partnership whose benefits outweigh its political inconveniences.

The U.S. wants close ties with Saudi Arabia -- which has one-fourth of the world's oil reserves -- in order to maintain regional security and secure the unimpeded flow of oil at market prices. The Saudis, in turn, want close security ties to Washington because they do not alone have the manpower base to defend themselves against the region's superpowers -- Iraq and Iran.

Until now, the mutual security interests of Riyadh and Washington have fostered close military cooperation. The some 5,000 U.S. forces currently stationed in Saudi Arabia are the remnants of a total of 500,000 American soldiers rushed to the country in 1990 to secure it against a possible Iraqi invasion and to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

Since 1999, Baghdad has been tentatively restoring trade with Riyadh and said recently it had imported $1 billion worth of goods from Saudi Arabia under and outside the UN oil-for-food program. But the two capitals continue to have no diplomatic relations.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has backed maintaining sizable U.S. forces in neighboring Gulf Arab states, despite strong opposition from Iran. That backing has continued unchanged even as Riyadh and Tehran in recent years have sought to increase their own economic cooperation, particularly in setting and not exceeding OPEC production targets.

Long said the strength of the partnership between Washington and Riyadh has enabled it to weather serious disagreements, including during the energy crisis of the 1970s. And he said that makes it unlikely it will be damaged by differences over the war on terrorism -- unless the war of words spins out of control.

"There has been for many years a [U.S.-Saudi] partnership, a security partnership, based on oil and security that has weathered many, many disagreements or hard times, such as the energy crisis in the 1970s. And there is no reason to think that this relationship is not so solid that it won't continue," Long said. "[But] the danger of wars of words is that they can have unintended consequences of getting sharper than either side wants to see."

Many Saudi political experts agree that Riyadh's close military ties to the U.S. are a priority for the royal family, despite strong opposition within segments of the public who view the presence of any foreign troops in Saudi Arabia -- the homeland of Islam -- as a sacrilege.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid is chief editor of "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat," a Saudi-funded newspaper published in London. He told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh recently that Saudi leaders credit their alliance with outside powers for the fact that the kingdom has been untouched by regional wars during the last 50 years.

"I think that the existence of good military relations with an external power is a general desire among regional states such as Egypt, Syria and Iran. And in the case of Saudi Arabia, it aims at protecting the country from external aggressions," Al-Rashid said. "And the most important point, I think, is that this military cooperation is the reason Saudi Arabia has not seen any large wars during the last half century."

Still, many observers note that in Saudi Arabia the issue of U.S. troops is deeply divisive and their expulsion is a key demand of Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden.

That may mean that if the current U.S.-Saudi crisis is largely a war of words, it is well worth watching because it is focusing attention on sensitive issues. And those issue may yet have to be addressed.

Shibley Telhami, a regional expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote recently in a commentary in "The New York Times" that neither Washington nor Riyadh is likely to want to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia for fear of it being seen as rewarding bin Laden. But, he added, in the future, a force reduction could well prove prudent as both nations appear to increasingly feel the need to reassess the details of their partnership.

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