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Iraq: U.S. Has Enough Gulf Support To Attack, Despite Saudi Mixed Signals

  • Charles Recknagel

As U.S. officials continue to talk of possible military action against Iraq, Saudi Arabia this week appeared to rule out use of its bases for any attacks on Baghdad. But then, in a revised statement, Riyadh said it might cooperate with a UN-approved action against Iraq if Baghdad refused to implement UN resolutions to disarm. The mixed signals again highlight the question of how much regional support Washington can expect for any military campaign against Iraq and under what circumstances. RFE/RL looks at the position of Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf states.

Prague, 6 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabia's mixed signals over whether it will or won't allow Washington to use its facilities against Baghdad is just the latest evidence of how ambiguous Riyadh continues to feel about any war on Iraq.

The signals saw Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal telling the U.S. satellite news channel CNN early this week that, regarding any military action, "we will abide by the decision of the United Nations Security Council" but "not to the extent of using facilities" in Saudi Arabia or Saudi military forces.

But two days later, Prince Saud revised his comments amid press speculation that he had given a firm "no" to Washington using the Prince Sultan Air Base, which was built by America to house the air staff of the U.S. Central Command in wartime. In an interview with "The New York Times," the foreign minister said that any decision on the issue had yet to be made. He added that it is "a sovereign right of Saudi Arabia to decide when the time comes."

Analysts say that Saud's inability to send a clear message to the press regarding Riyadh's stand on Iraq is symptomatic of the difficulty in which the whole question of a U.S.-led military campaign in the region has placed Saudi officials.

Daniel Neep, a regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says the Saudi ruling family is caught between its own strategic alignment with Washington on the one hand, and widespread popular Saudi antipathy toward the United States on the other. He says that, as a result, the regime continues to send out contradictory signals regarding Iraq and this week's example is not likely to be the last.

"What the Saudis are saying at the moment is not their last gambit. The Saudi regime is very much wedged between the country's underlining strategic interests, which go along with those of the United States, and Saudi domestic opinion, which expresses much more antipathy toward the West, and the United States in particular."

Anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia -- as in much of the Arab world -- over Iraq is largely a by-product of anger against Washington's support of Israel during Israel's ongoing operations in the Palestinian territories. At the same time, there is widespread sympathy for the plight of ordinary Iraqis under UN-approved economic sanctions and a sense that war will inflict further suffering upon them.

But many analysts say that even as Saudi Arabia appears unwilling to commit publicly over its military facilities, Riyadh is likely to agree to their use in some form if Washington goes to war with the backing of the UN.

Neep says the reason is that Saudi Arabia is aware that its relations with Washington have become strained in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, in which most of the attackers were Saudi nationals. And Riyadh does not want to risk what could become a deep estrangement, should it refuse to cooperate over Iraq.

"As events unfold and, presumably, if American military force does have some kind of UN backing -- which I think the Saudis very much see as absolutely necessary -- then we would probably see some kind of shift in the Saudi position. In the event of a military attack there will be more Saudi assistance then is being expressed in the public domain at the moment."

Analysts say the Saudi government may be particularly concerned that if it does not cooperate on Iraq the U.S. could ignore Riyadh's interests in any new situations created by having a Western-leaning administration in Baghdad. Iraq has the world's second-largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia and Riyadh will want to protect its share of the global market against a newly resurgent Iraqi oil industry.

At the same time, Riyadh may fear that alienating Washington would give other Arab Gulf states a new opening to vie for the advantages of being one of the United States' key strategic partners in the region. Saudi Arabia, which today remains Washington's preeminent partner, has watched with some disquiet the efforts by some of its neighbors -- particularly Qatar -- to woo Washington as U.S.-Saudi ties have been complicated by 11 September.

Neil Partrick, a regional expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says that tiny Qatar has no hope of replacing Saudi Arabia as Washington's most valuable partner. But Qatar has successfully offered the U.S. an alternative military base in the region which could give it a special status.

Faced with Riyadh's possible refusal to be a launch pad for strikes on Iraq, the U.S. has reportedly put some $1.4 billion into expanding Qatar's Al-Udeid facility into a major air base and military staging ground. Some 600 members of the U.S. Central Command are expected to move to Qatar soon for exercises that would provide a test of the base as a regional headquarters.

In what has been widely viewed as a sign of its displeasure over Qatar's courtship of Washington, Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Doha in September. The rift was also due to the Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera airing programs viewed by Riyadh as an affront to the Saudi royal family.

Partrick says that unlike Saudi Arabia's monarchy, the Qatari ruling family appears willing to publicly move closer to Washington despite any local anti-American feeling: "From its point of view, with a national Qatari population of just some quarter of a million people, as a tiny oil- and gas-rich state, it can be very effectively policed and has enormous powers of financial patronage, so I don't think it would see this as really threatening the ruling regime."

As it courts Washington, Doha also has cast itself as a neutral arbiter in the UN's dispute with Baghdad, with which it has full diplomatic relations and substantial trade ties. Like Saudi Arabia, Doha has called for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis within a UN framework. Doha also has frequently called for the lifting of the sanctions against Iraq on humanitarian grounds.

Regional analyst Partrick sums up the Qatari approach to the Iraq crisis this way: "I don't think any country in the region necessarily welcomes war, though many countries will be relieved to see the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein. But I think that Doha would take the view that it seems likely that the military campaign is going to take place and, in such a context, it will want to be on the right side. Qatar now seems to have made the shift, really, that Kuwait made, of seeing its security interests primarily alongside the U.S."

Kuwait, whose occupation by Baghdad sparked the 1991 Gulf War, has also made its facilities available to the United States in the current Iraq crisis. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said on 4 November that "if a [UN Security Council] resolution is issued, the bases will be used." But he said Kuwaiti forces would not participate in any military operations.

As Saudi Arabia issued its mixed signals this week over whether it would -- or would not -- ultimately join Qatar and Kuwait in opening its facilities to the U.S., top American officials appeared to view the question with equanimity.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not regard the Saudi foreign minister's remarks this week as indicating any kind of policy change. He said that he did not find the statements "notable in any sense."

Another top U.S. official, Mary Matalin, a counselor to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, said Washington is confident it has enough support in the region to carry out military operations. She said, "We have many friends and allies in the region and we have many friends and allies around the world...we would never engage unless we were sure that we could get the job done well."