Signs of Strain in U.S.-Saudi Relations

ByNews Analysis

A T H E N S, Greece, Dec. 17, 2001 -- The U.S. military campaign to crush Saudi-born terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his global al Qaeda network is impacting on America's relationship with one of its oldest and staunchest Middle East allies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The amateur videotape released by the Pentagon Dec. 13 of bin Laden dining and laughing with a guest Saudi sheikh underlines what bin Laden has stressed since the early 1990s: a high priority of his — and possibly his main target — is King Fahd's Saudi monarchy and its long partnership, dating back to World War II, with the United States.

Bin Laden's questions on the tape and the Saudi sheikh's answers, concerning the "joy" of other Saudi clerics at the news of the damage and casualties in the Sept. 11 attacks, was a new reminder of the kingdom's pivotal — and shaky — role in the U.S. -led anti-terror coalition.

Al Jazeera, the independent, Qatar-based Arab TV channel, was one of severalArab satellite channels to avoid taking a public stand on the apparently amateur video's authenticity. "We aired the tape like any other footage we might obtain," said one anonymous al Jazeera spokesman.

Public Declarations of Discontent and Threats

Al Jazeera aired two exclusive bin Laden interviews in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Both tapes embellished a line the Saudi construction tycoon has taken since his first public remarks opposing the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.

On one pre-recorded tape, which the network aired soon after the Oct. 7 launch of U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan, bin Laden tried to rally the world's 1.2 billion Muslims around the flag of jihad (holy war) to "liberate" his native Saudi Arabia, cradle of the Muslim faith, from "occupying U.S. forces."

"I swear by God that America and those who live in America will not dream of possessing security before we have it in Palestine and all infidel armies leave the land of the Prophet Muhammad," he vowed.

In another public videotape, broadcast Nov. 3, bin Laden issued a verbal scorcher against the United Nations, its secretary-general, Kofi Anan, and Arab leaders at the United Nations, calling the latter "infidels" for their support of Washington's war against terror.

An Irate Letter

In one of many recent bitter and outspoken commentaries by a Saudi, Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi political analyst, wrote a column warning that the United States and Saudi Arabia were on the brink of parting ways after 60 years. This, said Kashoggi, was the theme of a letter Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah wrote to President Bush before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Abdullah effectively rules the oil-rich kingdom for the ailing King Fahd.

According to Kashoggi, the reason for the escalating tensions was United States' "unqualified" support for Israel in its "ruthless" campaign against the Palestinians and their leader Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

To stress the relevance of his letter after Sept 11, Kashoggi said Abdullah re-read the original letter earlier this month to a meeting of more than 100 Saudi businessmen.

The cause of the prince's repetition, said Kashoggi and other Arab columnists, was White House assertions that "Israel has the right to defend itself" even as U.S.-made Israeli warplanes were bombing Arafat's headquarters, transport facilities and police infrastructures.

Crackdown on Charities

Saudi anger, further compounded by the latest embarrassment caused by the bin Laden videotapes, was aroused anew by Bush's justification of his decision to freeze the assets of a Texas-based American charity, The Holy Land Foundation, specializing in delivering aid to Palestinians.

The Saudi media, including state television, highlighted Bush's remark that "the money raised by Holy Land is used by [the blacklisted group ]Hamas to teach children how to become suicide bombers, and to support the families of suicidal terrorists."

The Saudis interpreted this as a total endorsement, if not parroting, of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's long-held line.

Judging by the coverage in the Saudi media, the situation has been further inflamed by the recent arrival of a U.S. financial and security team in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to discuss Saudi-U.S. cooperation to ensure funds raised by Saudi charities are not funneled to terror organizations.

"It is indeed odd," wrote Kashoggi, "how Americans who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and who built a museum in Washington dedicated to victims of racist oppression can acquiesce to the racist notion of stopping humanitarian aid to children in need."

Allegations and Counter Allegations

Rhetoric such as this is only one sign that despite Washington and Riyadh reaffirmations that all is well with U.S.-Saudi relations, which dates back to a World War II meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdelazziz aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Quincy, relations between the two countries have rarely been worse than they are now.

U.S. officials and diplomats still privately gripe about the lack of Saudi cooperation in investigating previous anti-U.S. terrorist incidents in the kingdom. And following the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. media has been critical about the lack of Saudi support for the ongoing investigations.

The Saudis, in their turn, deny allegations of non-cooperation with U.S. investigators.

They are bitter about what they regard as a U.S. media campaign blaming Riyadh for tolerating or even breeding religious fanaticism, financing guerrilla and terrorist movements like bin Laden's al Qaeda, crushing zealous reformers and tolerating widespread corruption.

A Different World After Sept. 11

But Crown Prince Abdullah's pre-Sept. 11 letter, citing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a reason why "it is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests," worries U.S. analysts.

They recall that Saudi Arabia holds 25 percent of the world's oil reserves and is also home to Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.

And the anti-U.S. sentiment prevails not only among young militants, but also among educated Saudis, many of them graduates from institutions such as Harvard, Yale or the University of California.

A U.S. visitor to Jeddah recently discovered that wealthy Arab merchants, who once proudly displayed autographed photos of themselves with President George Bush senior, were incensed by what they considered a racist trend to blame Muslims for the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent outbreaks of anthrax in the United States.

One of a number of Saudi students at Athens University said he had relatives who had been humiliated in the United States or Canada after Sept. 11.

"I'll be skipping the vacation I'd planned in Chicago and Arizona this year," he said.