Anti-U.S. sentiments growing in Saudi Arabia

June 26, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Ralph Begleiter

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It could take some time for authorities to make an official determination of the motives behind Tuesday's bombing in Saudi Arabia. But some are already speculating that this attack was inspired, as others have been, by anti-Western sentiments.

Saudi resentment towards the West breaks down into two main groups of thought. The first believes the West is propping up Saudi Arabia's monarchy, while the other feels that the presence of Westerners is corrupting the area's strong Islamic beliefs.

Clinton and Fahd

The anti-Western theme began in 1991, when hundreds of thousands of Western troops poured into Saudi Arabia for the 1991 war against Iraq. The troops touched a sensitive nerve with many Saudis, some of whom considered the semi-occupation a violation of Islamic religious sites. Others felt the troops were infringing on the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia.

"What you're really seeing in Saudi Arabia is this great influx of the outside world on a people who just haven't been ready for it," said Gulf analyst Sandra Mackey.

The sensitivity to a large military presence persists today. As U.S. President Bill Clinton has said, "We've tried not to be an obtrusive presence" in Saudi Arabia, and both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia minimize the number of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. In public, their officials say there are only 5,000 U.S. troops within the Saudi borders. But diplomatic sources tell CNN the actual number is three or four times greater -- as many as 20,000.


And Saudi military and political ties to the West are stronger than ever since the Gulf War, as the country seeks to protect itself against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and against radical, political Islamists.

Analysts say those close ties to the West anger ardent Muslims, many of whom fought in defense of Islam against the Soviets in Afghanistan, against the Serbs in Bosnia, and helped the radical government of Sudan.

"They came back trained, somewhat equipped and still inspired by the idea that the Lord called upon them with a special mission," said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy.

For some, that mission has evolved into undermining the centuries-long rule of Saudi royalty, its oil sales, and its military dependency on the United States. Will terrorist tactics drive the West out of Saudi Arabia, and lend to the eventual collapse of King Fahd's government? Possibly, although Western countries still perceive that they are generally welcome in Saudi Arabia.


"Most of the people in Saudi Arabia support the American presence. Our military relationship goes back four decades," noted Saudi diplomat Adel Al-Jubair. Western countries flooded into the nation during the oil boom of the 1960s and '70s, years in which up to 40,000 American civilians flooded into Saudi Arabia's gulf oil coast.

And Murphy acknowledged that the number of people who are acting against the leadership are a tiny percentage of Saudi residents. "You're talking about a tiny, tiny number of people in the kingdom who want to make a statement directly against us, but indirectly against their own regime," he said.

Nevertheless, regardless how small or large the number of people who oppose Western military presence in the Middle East, the use of terrorism to express that opposition has become a morbidly effective tactic. It has been used twice in Saudi Arabia in the past six months, and was successful in driving the Americans out of Lebanon in 1983.

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