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Western Press Review: Terror in Saudi Arabia, Choosing a New Iraqi Government

Prague, 31 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the main topics up for discussion in the press today are the terrorist attack on foreigners in Saudi Arabia and its impact on the world oil market, the hurdles in choosing the members of Iraq's post-30 June government, Russia and democracy, Libya's change of path, and other issues.


The terrorist attack on a foreign residential complex in Saudi Arabia, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people, 19 of them Westerners, is the topic of a news analysis by correspondent Simon Romero in "The New York Times."

The article -- which is also reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune," says the attack, the latest in a series of assaults against Western oil workers based in the kingdom, has increased worries about Saudi Arabia's ability to press ahead with increased oil production "at a time when global petroleum supplies are becoming increasingly sensitive to such disruptions."

Romero suggests that the moment chosen for the attack also appears to have been intended to inflict damage on the credibility of Saudi officials who are trying to pressure other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase output by 2 million barrels a day in an attempt to bring oil prices down.

"Saudi Arabia, with most of the world's spare oil production capacity, would be responsible for much of any increase in output," Romero writes. "The psychological effect of the increase, if approved by OPEC could be canceled out if markets remained jittery about the possibility of further attacks on Saudi energy installations, particularly places deemed critical for the production and transportation of oil."


The British daily "The Guardian," on the other hand, points to the pressure the attack places on the Saudi royal family and the stability of the kingdom. The newspaper says that Al-Qaeda may have had a double target.

"Beyond the immediate effect on foreign confidence," notes "The Guardian," "the most important effect is to raise a much larger question about the long-term viability of the Saudi regime. In a situation where no one has the slightest idea what might, or should, replace that regime, who can guarantee that the tap will always be turned on for 8 million barrels a day?"

The Western contribution, "The Guardian" concludes, has hardly been helpful, as both the United States and Britain appear committed to what the newspaper calls "a crude relationship of mutual need long based on oil and arms sales."

It goes on to say that if the West really wants to help the Saudis move forward, "then they need to change the regional environment which, far from encouraging democracy, is now fertile ground for much worse violence."


Referring to the painstaking process of selecting a post-30 June Iraqi government, "The New York Times" columnist William Safire remarks that both the United States and the United Nations were caught by surprise last week when "Iraqi leaders started acting like Iraqi leaders."

Safire notes that the Iraqis decided to say "no thanks" to "the UN-U.S. notion of an interim government of toothless technocrats, and rejected [UN envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi's choice for the top slot." Safire says that "like real politicians, they cut a few deals and chose one of their own -- a secular Shi'ite, not an Islamist or a Sunni or a Kurd -- to be prime minister."

Safire says current Iraqi leaders such as Iyad Allawi "are clearly" asserting themselves. "We will not like all they insist upon. But they are lurching toward a democratic decision," and "that's real progress," Safire concludes.


Referring to the same topic, the "International Herald Tribune" notes in an editorial titled "Iraq's Hollow Sovereignty," that "recent developments suggest that this 'sovereignty' will have little substance and that [U.S. President George W. Bush] still has no coherent plan to create the security and political trust required to negotiate a constitution and hold fair elections."

The paper says the sovereignty timetable "remains driven by the American electoral calendar and growing Iraqi impatience with an incompetent and deeply unpopular occupation."

"The only comfort to be drawn from the problematic nature of the 30 June transfer of sovereignty," the editorial concludes, "is that it at least points in the right direction, toward the eventual end of a mismanaged occupation whose costs mount with every passing day."


In an analysis of the Russian government's mixed performance, titled "Putin's Game," "Business Week" cautions against rushed judgments that say Putin is pushing Russia back to its Soviet past. "When analyzing Russia," write Patricia Kranz and Jason Bush, "it is easy to get sucked down Alice's rabbit hole, where nothing is ever quite as it seems."

Kranz and Bush say that, despite widespread criticism that Putin "is clamping down on the media, manipulating elections, throwing the country's richest in jail, renationalizing property and becoming more assertive abroad," the Russian leader's policies may be more complex than they appear.

Putin, the authors say, "may yet confound those who forecast the resurgence of a neo-Soviet Union. That's because there are two Putins inside the Russian president: the autocrat and the shrewd reformer. If the reformer gains the upper hand, a stronger, more democratic Russia may yet emerge."

Kranz and Bush argue that Putin's government has a larger number of Western-inspired reformers than former members of security services. They go on to say Putin's government managed to achieve economic growth that is not entirely based on high oil prices, as it might appear.

"By combining tight fiscal policy with a managed float of the ruble," the authors note, "[Putin's] government quickly restored stability after the 1998 crisis. The government kept a lid on expenses, using the gains from high oil prices to pay off debt.... Under Putin, the state has paid wages and pensions on time while demanding prompt payment of taxes in cash, killing off the 'virtual economy' -- a seemingly intractable tangle of debts, arrears and barter that characterized Russia in the 1990s."

However, Kranz and Bush warn that Putin could still push state control too far. They say: "If Putin mishandles the [Mikhail Khodorkovskii] affair and renationalizes Yukos and other big companies, he'll dampen the hard-won productivity gains in the private sector. Foreign investors would probably bolt."

They conclude that a "key signal of Putin's intentions will be his behavior in 2007, the year before the election. If he changes the constitution to give himself another term, Russia's democracy will take a great leap backward."


The "Los Angeles Times" publishes an article written by Thomas Omestad on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's change of attitude toward the West.

Omestad says that, while Libya has fulfilled its disarmament pledge with what State Department officials call "amazing speed," human rights are still widely violated and the state has quasi-total control.

Omestad writes that "Libya's shift represents, above all, a triumph of pragmatism: Qadhafi's transformation from an eccentric and lethal revolutionary to a more familiar type of Arab autocrat concerned with easing economic discontent and passing on his rule to kin."

"Yet for all the newfound pragmatism," Omestad says, "there are no signs that the new era will mean an end to dictatorship. The Libyan elite seems to envision a Chinese-style evolution: Open up the economy, but hold on tight to political power."

"Though the changes in foreign policy and economics are breathtaking," the author continues, "this is still the colonel's Libya. It is evident that people here are uncomfortable even uttering his name."

Omestad concludes, "In the new Libya, so far, freedom to make money doesn't mean freedom to speak your mind."

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