Magazine

Commentary: Get Tougher with Saudi Arabia--But Quietly


By Stanley Reed

One of the casualties of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington may well be America's relationship with Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter. Elements of both the U.S. media and the U.S. government are incensed at the Saudis' reluctance to cooperate with the American military or aid the investigation of the attacks. Several hijackers were probably Saudis and the prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, is a native of the Kingdom.

Saudi inaction is sparking fears about the stability of the Kingdom and about the security of its unmatched oil reserves. Concerns are growing that the Saudi regime has fostered terrorism by turning a blind eye to the activities of Islamic extremists.

Yet for now, fears of far-reaching instability in Saudi Arabia are exaggerated. The Kingdom is far from a collapse resembling that of Iran 20-plus years ago. True, there have been a few worrying incidents, such as a suicide bombing that killed an American in the city of al-Khobar on Oct. 6. But Saudi analysts and longtime residents say the atmosphere is relatively calm. And the marketplace thinks the Saudi oil supply is secure. The war-risk insurance premium for tankers loading at the main Saudi terminal at Ras Tanura is only a token $10,000, versus $1,000,000 for cargoes coming from Iraq. Oil prices are at their 20-year average of just over $22 per barrel.

But the U.S. cannot let the situation in Saudi Arabia drift. The Bush Administration must decide just how much to press the Saudi royal family to cooperate with its antiterrorism campaign. Pushing too hard could rattle the Kingdom. Over time, the U.S. has to rethink its overall policy. For too long the U.S. has backed a leadership that is widely perceived to be corrupt and allows so little political expression that the only outlet for dissent is religious extremism.

Part of the reason for the House of Saud's half-hearted cooperation with the Bush Administration is its worry over Osama bin Laden. His charges that the royal family has betrayed its Islamic foundations have found a good deal of sympathy among Saudis. That has the leadership caught between trying to accommodate their American protectors and keeping a lid on popular wrath. "This is one of the greatest threats the Saudi royal family has faced in the last twenty years," says Simon Henderson of Saudi Strategies, a London consultancy. "If they muck this up, they could lose [their hold on power]."

In time-honored fashion, the Saudis are trying to maneuver through this mess by treading cautiously. Washington's best shot at obtaining cooperation is to keep its conversations private. Even then the Saudis will be wary because the investigation is likely to reveal embarrassing details on the Kingdom's miscues, laxity, and complicity with regard to funding and otherwise supporting Islamic extremism. Only on Oct. 1 did the Saudi government order banks to check for dealings with suspected terror groups. It has yet to freeze a single bank account, according to U.S. sources. Sources in the Kingdom say the royal family also made a big mistake after the attacks on the U.S. by not encouraging Saudi-owned newspapers to publish articles exposing the horrors that bin Laden represents.

In the longer run, the U.S. needs to bolster support for reform-minded princes in the royal family such as Crown Prince Abdullah. He has been largely running the country in place of his ailing half-brother, King Fahd, but is caught in infighting with Fahd's full brother, Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Some princes even say privately that the royals need to be gradually eased out of government. The U.S. should put its weight behind the princes and technocrats who want economic liberalization and a gradual political opening of the country.

The U.S. should also urge the royal family to curb the corruption that has damaged their image. Even their own people are aware of the admission by the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Bandar bin Sultan, that corrupt Saudis may have siphoned off as much as $50 billion of the $400 billion spent on development.

None of these changes will be easy. The Saudi need for protection from the likes of Saddam Hussein provides some leverage for the Bush Administration. But the Saudis, who have spent billions for American arms, don't take kindly to direction from Washington. With luck, the Americans and the Saudis will ride out this scary period. Without major changes, though, their relationship is destined for strife. Reed covers the Middle East.


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