Saudi-U.S. relations are still explosive

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Sunday, November 11, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia and the United States have danced a minuet of strategic yin and yang for half a century as each has simultaneously protected and threatened the other’s vital interests. Now both the desert kingdom and the world’s only superpower realize they have danced onto the edge of a precipice that could crumble beneath them.

A sobered President Bush, bristling for most of the year under a constant stream of Saudi complaints and barely disguised threats over his handling of Israel, reached out to the monarchy with a phone call. He heroically proposed that Riyadh and Washington blame their problems on the press. That sounded fine to Crown Prince Abdullah, who dispatched his most adept royal to Washington to begin repair work.

The high-visibility arrival here last week of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister, was an inescapable sign of the sharp new concerns created by Osama bin Laden’s effort to drag the United States into his war with the Saudi royal family and religious establishment.

In an hour-long conversation, Prince Saud deployed considerable soft charm and eloquence to underline his country’s general support for the U.S. war on terrorism. But he was also candid about the limits of what the kingdom will do in that war and voiced continuing demands for Bush to launch a new peace effort in the Middle East.

"Our problems are not with the government here but with the press," he said with a smile late Thursday afternoon after he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell. When I asked what Saudi Arabia would do to help militarily in this war, Saud responded: "We are not a military country. But in all other aspects we are very much involved. … Everybody has to do what best he can do. We were told that it is for each country to determine what its role will be in the coalition."

Is that what "with us or against us" really meant? How was that phrase heard in the Arab world, I asked. Saud responded with praise for the American effort to track down and punish "the evildoers" behind Sept. 11. But throughout the conversation he circled adroitly back to the pressures that Israel’s crackdown on the Palestinians exerts on Arab governments friendly to Washington.

"This is a time for introspection, and we are willing to do that on our side," he said as we discussed bin Laden’s Saudi origins. "But for there to be a total war against terrorism, the West will have to engage in some introspection as well, and examine external policies that contribute to a dynamic in the Middle East that leads toward catastrophe."

He confirmed that Prince Abdullah had written to Bush several times last summer "when Ariel Sharon was running amok and there seemed to be no checks on Israeli actions. … We urged the United States to pull the reins on Mr. Sharon."

The Saudis in fact warned of irreparable harm to relations if the Bush administration continued a hands-off Middle East policy, U.S. sources say. A stony silence from the White House was the initial answer to Riyadh.

But, Saud said, eventually "the president sent the crown prince an eloquent letter" indicating "that the United States had come to a full realization that it was time for a new effort. Then very quickly came Sept. 11. Was that just a coincidence? I have very great suspicions" that it was not.

Saud did not voice opposition to U.S. military operations against Afghanistan continuing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Instead, he emphasized the special need to avoid civilian casualties in military strikes. The United States must also pursue "a political program that makes sure Afghanistan’s people and territorial integrity are not harmed" by the campaign.

That means a continuing political role for Taliban officials willing to break with their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and with bin Laden’s al Qaeda, Saud indicated. Mullah Omar’s fanaticism and "the sanctuary that the Taliban gave the evildoers" —not the Taliban itself—are the right targets in the war on terrorism. He rejected my contention that Saudi Arabia had helped create and sustain the Taliban.

Delicate balancing of opposing forces and truths has been a hallmark of the Saudi-U.S. relationship since the kingdom emerged as the world’s oil superpower. The royal family welcomes U.S. protection and patronage while rejecting American political and social values that threaten the monarchy and Saudi society, as they exist today.

Prince Saud’s visit may have helped stop the loud ticking of the time bomb that Saudi-U.S. relations have become. But I left our conversation thinking that the hands of the clock still point to five minutes to midnight in a region now in thrall to war and change.

Jim Hoagland can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or hoaglandj@washpost.com.

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