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U.S.: Saudi Relations Under New Scrutiny

  • Andrew Tully

News that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States may have indirectly aided the 11 September hijackers has angered some in Washington. The revelation comes at a time when U.S.-Saudi ties have been suffering. But analysts say given Saudi Arabia's geographical importance and oil wealth, there is little the U.S. can do to show its displeasure.

Washington, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia is coming under increased scrutiny because of published reports that the wife of the Saudi ambassador in Washington may have indirectly given financial support to two men involved in the terror attacks of 11 September 2001.

Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has issued a statement acknowledging she gave financial aid to the family of a Saudi man living in California. He was a friend of two men who later took part in the attacks on New York and Washington, but Haifa said it would be "irresponsible" to link her help to the terrorists.

So far there is no evidence that the princess had any intention of helping to finance the attacks or that any of the money actually reached the hijackers. But some members of Congress are demanding the Federal Bureau of Investigation look into the matter.

This latest revelation comes at a time of continuing difficult relations between the two countries. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 11 September were of Saudi origin, prompting many in the U.S. to wonder whether Saudi Arabia is truly an ally of the U.S. Some have criticized Riyadh for not cooperating fully in the investigations of the attacks. They also accuse the Saudi royal family of interfering with the U.S. probe of the 1996 terrorist attack on the American military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.

Simon Serfaty specializes in Middle Eastern affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy research center in Washington. He said it has long been known that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is marked by contradictions.

Serfaty told RFE/RL that the source of these contradictions is what he calls a "double game" played by the Saudi royal family, which is essentially the government of Saudi Arabia. "One side of the game is to get protection from the world outside with the close relationship with the United States, so we protect them from an attack, whether from Iraq or from other external states. But in addition, the Saudis want to be protected from an attack from within Saudi Arabia, and accordingly they pay off all kinds of terrorist groups. I mean, they really give in to blackmail."

According to Serfaty, this leads to a second contradiction: that those who threaten Saudi Arabia from within also threaten the U.S. from without. Because of this, he says, American leaders are telling Saudi Arabia it should not be "the friend of our enemies."

But analysts say there is little the U.S. can do, given the geographic, economic, and cultural importance of the country. Saudi Arabia is both the birthplace of Islam and home to the world's largest known oil reserves.

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said Saudi Arabia's importance derives from its diplomatic influence in the Middle East. "There are many sources of oil. Saudi Arabia is clearly one of the most important, but there are many other sources of oil. But in terms of diplomatic influence, one would be hard pressed to name another country with more in the Middle East region, which is still the world's tinder box."

But James Lindsay, who specializes in international affairs at the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank, said Saudi influence derives largely from oil. "Saudi Arabia is important to the United States in geopolitical terms both because of oil and location, and its location is important because it's located where the oil is. So it's a bit hard to disentangle the two issues."

Whatever the reason for Saudi Arabia's importance, analysts agree the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will probably ignore calls to "get tough" with Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, yesterday repeated the high value the administration puts on its relationship with Saudi Arabia. He called it a "good partner" in the war against international terrorism.

Sabato said no president would lightly take the risk of offending Saudi Arabia because of the complaints of a few members of the Congress. "It's the easiest thing in the world for some to say that Saudi Arabia ought to be the focus of a government investigation about money getting to the hijackers. It's another thing entirely to actually do [launch an investigation] without irreparably harming relations with this very key power in the region."

Lindsay agreed, saying Saudi Arabia is just as capable of punishing the United States as the United States is of punishing Saudi Arabia. "While it's tempting for many [U.S.] politicians to suggest we can give the back of our hand to Riyadh, it's also quite clear that Riyadh can give the back of its hand to us."

Serfaty approaches the talk about "getting tough" with Saudi Arabia by pointing out that it would be easier for the Saudis to find another source of protection than it would for Washington to find as reliable a source of oil.

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