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Do We Still Need the Saudis?

Do We Still Need the Saudis?

By Romesh Ratnesar Riyadh
With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson/Washington, Scott MacLeod/Riyadh and J.F.O. McAllister/London

People in Saudi Arabia are sick of talking about Sept. 11. they have little interest in examining why 15 of their countrymen hijacked U.S. commercial planes and killed 3,000 civilians; many prefer to believe that the attacks were the work of the CIA or the Mossad, and that the 15 hijackers were unwitting players in someone else's plot.

"They were just bodies," a senior government official says. Spend an evening in Jidda, the hometown of Osama bin Laden, where young Saudis today flock to American chain restaurants and shopping malls to loiter away the stifling summer nights, and you rarely hear bin Laden's name. "They find it silly when people talk about al-Qaeda," says journalist Mohammed al-Kheriji, 28, as he sips a latte at the city's newest Starbucks. "People are worried about their own problems."


But while Saudis remain uninterested--or perhaps they're in a state of denial--in the level of Saudi participation in Sept. 11, the country seethes with open loathing for the U.S. and sympathy for bin Laden's cause. Signs of anti-Western militancy are rife throughout this vast kingdom, from the capital, Riyadh--where in June separate car bombs blew up a British banker outside his home and nearly killed an American expatriate--to Abha, a remote mountain city in the southern province of Asir, where four of the hijackers were raised and locals still celebrate all "the Fifteen," as the group is called. "Their friends are really proud of them," says Ghazi al Gamdhi, 22, a university student. "They think the Fifteen were protecting Islam. Most of the guys here want to become heroes protecting Islam."

In recent weeks Saudi militants have resumed their campaign against one of the original sources of bin Laden's wrath: the 6,000 American troops stationed on Saudi soil. In June, after U.S. investigators discovered the spent casing of a Russian-made surface-to-air missile lying in the desert near the Prince Sultan air base, Saudi intelligence arrested 11 Saudi members of an al-Qaeda cell for plotting to shoot down U.S. jets that use the facility and for preparing attacks against other American targets in the kingdom. It was the first official acknowledgment since Sept. 11 that the organization is active in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom's latent anti-Americanism has been stoked in recent months by fierce opposition to the Bush Administration's pro-Israel Middle East policies and the perceived harassment of Muslims in the U.S. The country's powerful fundamentalist clerics have used these issues to agitate the masses. Government officials are worried that the country's imams are slipping beyond their control. "Six months ago, you could call them in and say, 'Cut it out,'" says a senior Saudi official. "But now you have hundreds of imams condemning the U.S. at prayers every Friday. How can you stop that?"

Given the stakes, both countries need to figure out a way. Hundreds of Saudis fought alongside the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan last year. More than one-third of the 350 hard-core fighters being held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Saudi nationals. Billions of dollars from wealthy Saudis have funded anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist groups and helped establish radical schools worldwide that foment Islamic militancy, including the madrasahs in Pakistan that produced the Taliban. Americans hardly expect that kind of treatment from their worst enemies--let alone their oldest strategic partner in the Arab world, which has relied on U.S. soldiers for more than a decade to protect it against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But Saudi Arabia controls 30% of the world's known oil reserves. And so for years, in the interest of maintaining the world's supply of crude, Washington has ignored evidence that the ruling Sauds are allowing the country's powerful religious leaders to propagate anti-Western hate. "If the Saudis sold onions instead of oil," says Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, "we would be talking about how to isolate them."

Should the U.S. not be talking about that anyway? In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it's worth asking whether America truly still needs the Saudis. In economic and strategic terms, the U.S. can probably manage without them. Saudi Arabia today provides only 8% of the oil consumed by Americans. It accounts for 15% of the U.S.'s crude-oil imports, less than half the amount the U.S. imports from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. That's a far cry from the 25% figure for 1973, when the Saudis, piqued by Israel's victory in that year's war, embargoed oil sales to the U.S. and prompted a 70% rise in crude prices. The Saudis' vast reserves give them the power to manage the worldwide price of oil, making them critical to the smooth running of the global economy. But with promising new oil sources opening up in Russia and Central Asian states like Kazakh- stan and Azerbaijan, the U.S. has alternatives it didn't have in 1973. Oil-industry analysts believe that cutting the flow of Saudi oil to the U.S. would be painful--but far from fatal--to the U.S. economy.

Because of its size and clout in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is capable of playing a role in the Middle East peace process. President Bush consults regularly with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the Saudis' influence is limited. Though Abdullah has dangled normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state, only Washington has the credibility to drag the two sides to the negotiating table.

One issue above all highlights the declining relevance of the Saudis: Iraq. The Saudis, who provided bases and air support to the coalition effort during the Gulf War, have signaled reluctance to participate in a new U.S. operation against Saddam Hussein, prompting the U.S. military to begin planning around them. Anti-Saudi hawks hope that once the U.S. installs a friendly regime in Iraq--the Administration says it is still merely considering such a plan--Washington will end its alliance with the kingdom, its oil and bases no longer critical to U.S. interests. "If we sort out Iraq and Detroit develops a hydrogen engine," says a U.S. diplomat, "Saudi Arabia will go back to being a fascinating, benighted part of the world that people don't visit."

Isolating Riyadh, though, carries risks. Western diplomats warn that the al-Saud clan, which has ruled the kingdom for the past century, is the only Western-leaning institution left in a fundamentalist state that is growing younger, poorer and more radical. "Let's say we decided to split sheets with the Saudis. What would replace them would not be a pretty sight," says a U.S. diplomat. "You could see another Taliban. There's no moderate group that could come in and take over."

Nor is Riyadh necessarily inclined to go its own way. In the past two months, it has been worried enough about its relations with America to launch a P.R. blitz modeled after a U.S. political campaign, with issue ads, town-hall meetings, focus groups and overnight polling. The goal: to improve the image of the Saudis in the U.S. Only 32% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Saudi Arabia, down from 60% during the Gulf War. The point man for the campaign, Adel al-Jubeir, a top aide to Crown Prince Abdullah, says that after Sept. 11, "we discovered Americans don't know us. So we decided to explain ourselves to them."

Speaking to TIME in Jidda, al-Jubeir laid out the Saudis' case: "We play a moderating influence in terms of regional stability, oil markets and financial markets. And Saudi Arabia is the center of the Islamic world; 1.2 billion people around the world face Mecca in prayer. Wouldn't you want to have strong ties with a country that has this position?" Perhaps. But it's worth asking, At what cost?

a generation ago, vast swaths of the Arabian Peninsula lacked the basic infrastructure of a modern society--roads, running water, electricity. Today nearly half the country's 22 million people live in Riyadh or Jidda, and Saudis make up the biggest market for U.S. consumer products in the Middle East. When they're not fighting city traffic in Cadillac suvs, middle-class Saudis frequent gleaming shopping malls lined with designer brand names from the U.S. In a country where women are required to wear full-length abayas in public, you can catch Sex and the City on satellite TV every Friday night.

But social frustration is mounting because of pressure from the country's exploding young population. More than 60% of the Saudis are under 25, and the birth rate--37 births for every 1,000 people--is among the highest in the world. Because of falling oil revenues and the country's spiraling debt, per capita income has plummeted from $28,600 to $6,800 in the past 20 years. Though one-third of all Saudis are unemployed, the kingdom imports 6 million foreign workers to fill the low-wage jobs Saudis don't want. Restive and jobless young Saudis have nowhere to turn in an antidemocratic society governed by puritanical social norms: Saudi authorities ban dance clubs and movie theaters, forbid women to drive and prohibit men and women from mixing in public. "That adds up to a fragile situation," says a U.S. official.

Islam is central to the identity of the Saudi state, whose influence in the Muslim world is based on its stewardship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam. The al-Saud family has held on to power by placating the kingdom's religious establishment, which is dominated by descendants of the 18th century Muslim cleric Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab. To defuse the religious leaders' hostility to modernization, the Sauds gave the Wahhabists broad power to dispense their forbidding brand of Islam in the country's mosques and schools and to regulate daily life in the kingdom. During the five daily prayer times, official morality squads roam streets and shopping malls, ordering businesses to close and bystanders to head to the nearest mosque.

Many Saudis resent Western attempts to blame Wahhabism for Sept. 11; they say the Saudis who ultimately joined bin Laden's brigade learned their trade not in Saudi Arabia but by fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan--a war supported and funded in part by Washington. But some Saudi elites have begun to argue that something is basically rotten in their homeland. Says a Saudi journalist: "Wahhabism breeds extremism. It was building up, and bin Laden used it. The government should have said, 'Enough is enough.'"

Askar Enazy, a professor of international law in Riyadh and an outspoken critic of the regime, complains that the clerics "are allowed to run rampant. The al-Saud believe if they oppose them, it will undermine their own legitimacy as rulers. They had the opportunity to crush them many times before but chose not to." Mohammed al Odad is a government minister in Abha, but he is dismayed. "The fundamentalists have total control of the masses," he says. "It gets worse and worse." Parents say they are fed up with the Wahhabist school curriculum, which rears students on a diet of intolerance. A typical passage from a sixth-grade history textbook vows that "Arabs and Muslims will succeed, God willing, in beating the Jews and their allies." Even a member of the royal family concedes, "We can't say we didn't know what was going on. People who stood up against it were told to shut up. The government let it get out of hand."

Both countries paid the price on Sept. 11. Yet far from challenging the Saudis' record of breeding extremism, the White House has from the start defended its oil-rich ally. As early as Sept. 24, Bush declared "the Saudi Arabians have been nothing but cooperative." Counterterrorism officials in Washington and Riyadh say they have worked closely together to liquidate al-Qaeda. According to U.S. officials, the Saudis have arrested more than 100 al-Qaeda members inside the kingdom, given American investigators access to interrogations of terrorism suspects and shared reams of intelligence on the Taliban and bin Laden's network.

But some U.S. officials say the Saudis have shown less enthusiasm for American efforts to choke off the huge sums of Saudi money that flow to terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The regime waited until March to put into place new measures that crack down on money laundering and require Saudi-based charities to disclose where their money is going. "There are things we want that they're not ready to exchange yet," says a U.S. diplomat in the region.

The Saudis approved Pentagon use of the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), a multibillion-dollar U.S.-built facility at the Prince Sultan base, to direct the air war against the Taliban but did not offer to allow American bombers to fly combat missions from Saudi bases. If the Administration expected more from the Saudis, it didn't ask for it. On sensitive internal matters--such as the radical indoctrination of schoolchildren by the Wahhabists--the U.S. has not pressured the royal family directly. "There has been no table pounding," admits a senior U.S. official. "When the Saudis get hectored about reform, they get their backs up and say, To hell with it--we're not going to do it."

The festering public anger toward the U.S. gives the Saudis little incentive to cooperate. Only 16% of Saudis have a favorable view of America, according to a Gallup poll taken this spring. Nothing has done more to fuel the antipathy than the Administration's unwillingness to even try to rein in the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians. Says Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud,who is the biggest foreign investor in the U.S.: "The people see their brothers dying in Palestine, and it makes them hate America." The Israeli reoccupation of West Bank cities has handed religious hard-liners an excuse to go on the offensive. In a televised address, Sheik Abd-al-Rahman al-Sudays, imam of the Mosque of Mecca, declared that God turned Jews into "pigs and monkeys," condemned the "poisonous culture and rotten ideas" of the West, and trashed Hinduism.

Members of the ruling family fret that outrage against the U.S. could rebound against them. That's why the Saudis have pleaded with Washington to restart the peace process and put more pressure on Israel. In mid-June, as the White House was drafting the President's Middle East policy speech, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal met with Bush and handed him a letter from his uncle Abdullah urging the U.S. to promote a "clear vision" in the speech, including geographical boundaries and a timetable for Palestinian statehood. Two days later, Abdullah personally phoned Bush to lobby for specifics. The Bush speech ultimately dodged the border issue, and though it did call for a Palestinian state within three years, it made clear that any progress toward that goal would have to come after the removal of Yasser Arafat and the emergence of new Palestinian leaders untainted by terrorism.

In private, Saudi officials have trashed the speech. Last month, after Prince Saud and the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt met with Bush at the White House, the prince tried to put the best face on things, saying he was "much impressed" by Bush's commitment to a three-year timetable for a Palestinian state and an eventual end to the Israeli occupation. Still, says a U.S. official, "our reputation is at a low ebb, and so it's harder for the Saudis to do things in public view with us."

Most immediately, that means Iraq. The royal family would love to see Saddam Hussein gone, but it has no interest in taking the political risk of joining an attack on another Arab country while the Saudi public is agitated over the Palestinian problem. At one stage, the Saudis privately indicated a willingness to support a military campaign--at a minimum, the Pentagon would expect permission to use CAOC--if the region cools off and Saddam refuses to admit weapons inspectors. But Saudi officials told Time that today the government is unlikely to offer even that much help. Says a Saudi official: "We can't have the U.S. military thinking that anytime they go to war Saudi Arabia is the command-and-control center."

The Saudis believe that the U.S. won't try to go to war without them. But in the war rooms inside the Pentagon and at Central Command in Tampa, Fla., military strategists no longer think the U.S. needs the Saudis to dislodge Saddam. Strategists say a war against Iraq would require as many as 200,000 troops, with forces launching from Kuwait, Turkey and the smaller gulf emirates, reinforced by a massive U.S. Navy and Marine presence. The U.S. already has 10,000 Army troops at Kuwait's Camp Doha, where the Pentagon has stored tanks and other weapons. Some 3,000 U.S. troops man the al-Udeid air base in Qatar, just across the gulf from Iraq. The military has added new runways to a 15,000-ft.-long airstrip that is big enough to serve as the backup landing area for the space shuttle. General John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, says the military is upgrading al-Udeid for use as a command-and-control center if the Saudis put CAOC off-limits.

The idea that the U.S. no longer needs to keep 6,000 troops in Saudi Arabia must frighten the royal family. While the princes occasionally grumble about the risks associated with a U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia--namely, bin Laden's demand that the House of Saud be deposed for hosting the infidels--the Saudis know they can't afford to lose the guarantee of U.S. protection. Since the Gulf War, the kingdom has spent $270 billion on high-tech weapons, but its forces still lack the training and skills to make them work. As a result, the regime is helpless against external threats, and Iran could become one even if Iraq is neutralized. "They need us more than we need them," says a U.S. diplomat in the region. "It's not a country that can defend its interests without a formidable ally. And the Saudis don't have an alternative to us."

For all their gripes about U.S. foreign policy, the Saudis' only weapon of protest is oil. And the regime isn't about to risk losing oil revenues at a time when the population is getting restless. The princes live lavishly, but ordinary people have had their lifestyles thrashed. For now the Sauds' hold on power seems secure, but it is a sign of the government's anxieties that Abdullah has taken steps to loosen the political system and crack down on corruption in the 30,000-person royal family.

What the Sauds have not done is provide their people with an alternative to the insular world view peddled by the country's Wahhabist clerics. Saudi liberals like Professor Enazy who seek to counter the extremists still find themselves muzzled. Drinking coffee in the refuge of a Riyadh hotel room, Enazy says the government has warned him not to criticize the kingdom's religious establishment. "If I publish anything, I'll get kicked out of a job," he says. "And yet they allow the extremists to get away with anything they want." The U.S. has provided little support to those moderate voices inside Saudi Arabia, largely to avoid doing anything that would undermine the regime and disrupt the world's energy market. But that's no longer good enough. As Sept. 11 showed, the security of the U.S. depends on more than cheap oil.




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