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Saudi Arabia: Royals Reluctant To Support Antiterror Campaign

Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the 11 September attacks in Washington and New York, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. The majority of the 19 men who carried out the attacks were also from Saudi Arabia. And money from Saudi charities has allegedly gone to fund bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Despite these open connections between Saudi Arabia and last month's attacks, the Arab oil giant has balked at assisting the U.S. in its investigation into the events.

Prague, 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has few more important -- or more skittish -- partners in its war against terrorism than the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But the U.S.'s new campaign is putting to the test the political, economic, and military ties that have made America and Saudi Arabia uneasy allies.

The kingdom has an unusually personal role in the U.S. war against terrorism. Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the 11 September attacks against New York and Washington, comes from a prominent Saudi business family. A stated aim of his worldwide campaign of terror is to evict U.S. troops from Saudi soil.

Moreover, 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 11 September attacks were from Saudi Arabia. And U.S. intelligence reports claim that Saudi money has been financing bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network -- and other extremist groups in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Central Asia -- for years.

Since the attacks, Riyadh has refused requests from Washington to freeze the assets of bin Laden and his associates. It has also refused to cooperate fully with the U.S. investigation into the hijackings, and has barred Washington from using Saudi air bases to launch attacks against Afghanistan.

Observers say Saudi reluctance to fully support the U.S. in its war on terrorism stems from both external and internal pressures.

Paul Lalor, an expert on Arab nations with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says that U.S. foreign policies in the Mideast -- particularly with regard to Israel -- have long offended Saudi Arabia's ruling Saud family and its citizens.

"Another reason for Saudi reluctance to offer unquestioning support for the United States in Afghanistan is the ongoing situation in Israel and Palestine. In recent days, Israeli forces have gone into Palestine, in the West Bank in particular. Perhaps as many as 50 Palestinians have been killed. The U.S. called on Israel to withdraw from those areas. And Israel was reluctant to do so and has withdrawn from [only] some of those areas. For Saudi Arabia this is a clear example of double standard on the part of the U.S. administration."

The continued embargo on Iraq is also problematic for the Saudi government, which views the sanctions as punishing Iraqi citizens and having little or no effect on the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Lalor says the ruling Saud family must walk a careful balance in Saudi Arabia, where it is seen by some to have sold oil access to the U.S. in exchange for military backing.

"The regime is vulnerable to charges that it is kept in power by the United States. And of course this is one of the primary charges made by opposition figures and people like Osama bin Laden. Al-Saud's claims to legitimacy in terms of Islam are undermined by the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and dozens of aircraft in Saudi Arabia. Those troops and aircraft came in the wake of [the Gulf War] and have remained there. So in this way, bin Laden's objectives of driving foreign troops out of the birthplace of Islam and ending U.S. guarantees for the ruling family have such resonance in the Arab states and in parts of the Muslim world."

Ed Blanche is an expert on Saudi Arabia with "Jane's Defence Weekly." He says the Saudi royal family's reluctance to investigate Saudi connections to the U.S. terror attacks is a reflection of government embarrassment.

"The pressures on the Saudi government are, I would think, basically internal rather than external. Obviously, the attacks of September 11 and the fact that most of the hijackers are of Saudi nationality are an acute embarrassment to them. Not only because it actually happened and the human cost involved, but because it brought into the open -- probably more forcefully than any time in the past -- the fact that there exists within Saudi Arabia a considerable community of dissent against the ruling family."

Despite the government's promotion of the purist Wahabbi sect of Islam among Saudi citizens, the regime itself is accused of decadence and irreverent behavior. Blanche says that many Saudi citizens feel their government has been corrupted through its vast oil wealth.

"There are in Saudi Arabia religious figures -- who have a considerable following -- who believe the Saudi regime has become corrupt through its oil wealth, that the system is riddled with nepotism and corruption, decadence, [and] pro-Western decadence that the ruling elite enjoys around the world when they flaunt their wealth. All this has aroused considerable anger."

Lalor says the seeds of terrorism are being sown on Saudi soil with the official sanctioning of political Islam.

"There has been support for political Islam inside Saudi Arabia. The Al-Saud family has refused the country's small liberal lobby any share in power and they've promoted Islam instead. They've funded Islamic universities which produce graduates well versed in the Koran, but don't have technological and other skills which are necessary in the modern world. At the same time, many dissidents from Syria and Egypt who come from a background of political Islam teach at primary and secondary schools in Saudi Arabia. And these people and their philosophy has had an impact on the young."

The political pressures in Saudi Arabia have been intensified by the economy. Despite press reports that the country is "oil rich," Saudi Arabia has been plagued by falling oil prices and a tremendous Gulf War debt. These two factors have caused the per capita GDP to fall from $16,000 a year in 1985 to $7,000 a year in 2000. For half the population -- comprising people 18 and younger -- the failing economy is a harbinger of dwindling opportunity and financial success. This sense of economic despair, analysts say, will only contribute to the growing dissent against the Saudi government.