Friends like these

Why did so many of the Sept. 11 hijackers have ties to Saudi Arabia? Why can't the U.S. use Saudi bases to fight the war on terrorism? What Americans don't know about their best Muslim ally.

Published September 28, 2001 10:08PM (EDT)

With U.S. officials now admitting that a military strike against Osama bin Laden is unlikely any time soon, American diplomatic and political efforts to marshal allies behind a long, stealthy war against terrorism have become even more crucial. One of the linchpins is Saudi Arabia, the supposedly stable, so-called "moderate" state that is the most important U.S. ally in the Islamic world.

But the U.S.-Saudi alliance, based on the Arab nation's vast oil reserves and strategic importance, has been uneasy since the Gulf War. The nation is still tending to internal wounds inflicted when it opened its borders to American troops during Operation Desert Storm, and was then unable, or unwilling, to orchestrate their exit. Nearly 5,000 active troops remain in Saudi Arabia to this day, a fact that has become a rallying cry among Islamic hard-liners like bin Laden, who see the American presence in the Holy Land as proof of a coming occupation.

Now, pressed again for more high-profile assistance from the West, the Saudis will need to avoid further radicalizing their own people. That anxiety explains why the royal family recently rebuffed America, refusing to let U.S. forces use Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base for retaliatory attacks against bin Laden and the Taliban.

Perhaps even more distressing for the Saudis right now is the revelation that so many of the World Trade Center hijackers were of Saudi descent. (The exact number is still in dispute.) In the past, the monarch was reluctant to even publicly acknowledge homegrown extremists. But now the world knows that Saudi Arabia has produced some of the most murderous militants in recent history.

"It's embarrassing for the royal family," says Emory Bogle, Middle Eastern historian and professor emeritus at Virginia's University of Richmond.

What may be embarrassing for the United States is the fact that its closest Islamic ally is among the most repressive when it comes to dealing with women and political dissidents. "If the term 'Islamic fundamentalist' applies to any place in the world, it's Saudi Arabia," says Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network. "The Taliban is rightly criticized for its horrendous social policies. But the silence on Saudi Arabia is inexcusable. The lack of political freedom there is stifling, yet Saudi Arabia gets a pass from the West."

Oil is the likely explanation for that free pass. America needs it, and the Saudis want to sell it.

"Our way of life is dependent on them, and their way of life is dependent on us. It's a fantastic, symbiotic relationship," adds Bogle. "It subsumes other issues that arise."

Sitting on the world's largest oil reserves and conducting vigorous, billion-dollar business with American companies has certainly helped Saudi Arabia mask its true identity from the West.

Though the country is thought to be teeming with oil millionaires and a contented population grateful for a benevolent government that spends lavishly on world-class airports, highways and college campuses, the truth today does not match that placid image.

"The fact is Saudi Arabia is very much a society in turmoil," says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. Indeed, the country faces a sagging economy, ballooning unemployment and cascading population growth, all of which, combined with Saudi Arabia's continued close military ties with America, have led to serious internal unrest.

"Clearly there is a lot of discontent and unhappiness in Saudi Arabia," Voll says.

And now, for a country whose rulers prize secrecy and prefer to maintain a carefully stage-managed façade, Saudi Arabia has suddenly been pushed front and center in America's new war on terrorism, and the kingdom is struggling to find its way.

Ever since 1945, when President Roosevelt conferred with Saudi King Ibn Saud on a warship in the Red Sea to ensure a petroleum supply for the war effort, Saudi Arabia has tried to balance its increasingly global, West-friendly economy (as well as its dependence on American military power) with its more conservative, historical role as the birthplace of Islam. (The prophet Mohammed was born in the Saudi city of Mecca.)

Still, for the last half-century the country, at least through most American eyes, has enjoyed a sort of rarefied existence, most notably in the status it enjoys as a so-called "moderate" state. Yet alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, as were valentines and Pokéman cards recently. Women, who are routinely segregated from men, cannot drive automobiles. The country has no written constitution and no elected legislature, and there are no political parties. Instead, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. Its royal family numbers 4,000, but just 60 have a major say in policy decisions. Saudi courts order more than 100 public beheadings each year, and human rights groups claim detainees are routinely tortured.

Radio, television and Internet content is censored by the state. Religious police patrol markets, searching for women not properly covered up or shops remaining open during required daily prayers. Tourist visas do not exist. American reporters can be denied access to the country during times of uncertainty. (Like now.) Official population and unemployment figures are deemed suspect by outsiders. Government spending is not made public. And an extreme, puritanical brand of Islam, Wahhibism, is the official religion of the Saudi monarchy. It's also practiced by Saudi native Osama bin Laden.

Earlier this week Saudi Arabia did give the U.S. coalition a boost by breaking off diplomatic as well as crucial financial ties with the fundamentalist Afghan government.

"Taliban needs Saudi support and needs the prestige within the Islamic world that the Saudi relationship represented," says Voll at Georgetown. Perhaps more importantly, donations that in recent years had flowed from wealthy Saudi businessmen to the Taliban will now likely cease.

But unexamined in the wake of that diplomatic break is why in 1997 Saudi Arabia became one of just three countries in the world to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. (Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the other two.)

The answers are numerous, but each illustrates the precarious path the Saudi royal family must travel when navigating the minefield of provincial Islamic politics.

First, in a region ruled by secular regimes, such as in Egypt, Syria and Turkey, it was natural for Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the promoter and protector of Islam, to reach out to the fervently religious Taliban leadership. "Saudis were also concerned about encouraging Muslims in Central Asia," notes Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Additionally, Cordesman says, Pakistan asked the Saudis to make the diplomatic move.

Then there was the fact that the new Afghan government acknowledged the Saudi monarch's brand of fundamentalist Islam, Wahhibism, making the Taliban "the most visible group in the Muslim world" to do so, says Voll. That was key, because coming from the Taliban, the nod gave the Saudis the appearance of being at the forefront among Islamic revolutionaries. And for a lavishly wealthy royal family which for the last 20 years had often been accused -- most notably by Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- of no longer being properly Islamic, the association with the Taliban helped quell those religious criticisms.

The Saudis, though, quickly found it difficult dealing with the Taliban, and downgraded their diplomatic ties in 1998.

Then just three weeks ago, in a monarchy shakeup that went virtually unnoticed by the Western press, Prince Turki al-Feisal was replaced as chief of the Saudi Intelligence Service "at the request" of the king, becoming the first "first-rank" Saudi prince in two decades to lose his job. Speculation ran high that Turki was demoted because of his inability in recent years to persuade the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. (Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of citizenship in 1994.) The irony is, it was Turki who first recruited bin Laden, then a young Saudi millionaire, to the Afghan cause nearly two decades ago as a way to demonstrate the Saudis' resolve in driving out the Soviets.

But much has changed in Saudi Arabia during the last 20 years. Once run as an opulent welfare state, where college graduates were virtually guaranteed cushy, 30-hour-a-week white-collar jobs, Saudi Arabia today is battling rising unemployment, particularly among young men. And the Saudis have too many young men (and young women). Nearly half the country's 20 million citizens are under the age of 20, products of a baby boom during the country's heady 1980s oil glory days. Saudi mothers bear an average of six children apiece, and the country's annual population growth in recent years has hovered at about 4 percent, among the highest in the world.

The result is a growing number of discontented, educated natives who may present more of a danger than indigent populations do in neighboring countries. "Poor laborers are not the biggest problem. The problem are those with some education, the potential professionals," says Voll. "Look at the description of the hijackers. They were Saudi middle-class wannabes who expected to be professionals and didn't see opportunities they thought should be there. People like that are much more dangerous, and can do things peasants can't do. Like blend into a Florida suburb." (Several of the hijackers lived and trained as pilots in Florida.)

The London Guardian newspaper this week quoted a Muslim source as suggesting that 80 percent of bin Laden's recruits are from Saudi Arabia. Even if that number is too high, it's now clear that bin Laden's following in his homeland is more intense than most Westerners believed. That's particularly true in the desolate regions of Asir and Baha near Yeman, where bin Laden's family is from and where several of the hijackers lived.

Even the Saudi government seemed to concede that point when it broke off relations with the Taliban, insisting that the Afghan government "had made their land a reception, training and recruitment center for a number of lost people of every nationality, particularly Saudis, so that they carry out criminal acts." (Emphasis added.)

That suggests the Saudis have been duped by the Taliban, which has been busy luring unsuspecting Saudis to the dark side of radical dissent.

Yet during the 1980s the Saudi government encouraged, even glorified, Saudis who took up arms against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Over the years, between 10,000 and 25,000 young Saudis have left the country to join Islamic guerrilla groups, according to Cordesman.

Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, author and expert on Islamic extremism in Pakistan, writes that the problem is even more widespread: "If the U.S. wants to do something about radical Islam, it has to deal with Saudi Arabia. The 'rogue states' [Iraq, Libya, etc.] are less important in the radicalization of Islam than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the single most important cause and supporter of the general fanaticization of Islam."

Why hasn't America raised that red flag? Consider that last May Saudi Arabia announced its most lucrative Western investment deal in nearly three decades, a natural gas project by America's ExxonMobil oil company valued at $100 billion.

Meanwhile, since 1989, Saudis have purchased $40 billion worth of military products from America.

That's not to suggest there haven't been tensions between Washington and Riyadh recently. In 1995, terrorists killed four Americans working in the Saudi capital. FBI officials wanted to interview the arrested suspects, who were clearly bin Laden sympathizers. Saudi courts refused to cooperate, and beheaded the men instead.

The next year, terrorists, trying to drive U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia, parked a truck outside the U.S. military Khobar Towers apartment in Dhahran, killing 19 Americans and maiming 372. Once again, FBI investigators were denied access to evidence and the chance to question the suspects. American law enforcement blamed the crime on a dissident Saudi group that Saudi officials say does not exist.

Earlier this year, an American grand jury handed down indictments against the Dhahran terrorists, some of whom sit in Saudi jails. Saudi officials dismissed the move though, and have refused to extradite any of the men to stand trial in America. (The case has proven to be particularly embarrassing for the Saudis since three months before the Dharan attack, officials uncovered the plot, yet were still unable to stop it.)

Experts explain the snubs by suggesting that the Saudi royal family simply cannot afford to be seen as currying favor with America, which would ignite more anti-Western resentment among an already suspicious minority at home. It's against that backdrop that the Saudis must now carefully tread during the pending U.S.-sponsored war on terrorism.

"The best-case scenario for them is a short, precise military operation that succeeds in destroying bin Laden's bases and key infrastructure components," says Neil Patrick, the head of the Middle East program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

But administration officials themselves say that's not likely any time soon. And pressure seems to be mounting from hawks to plan strikes beyond Afghanistan and to include other Muslim states with alleged terrorist ties, such as Iraq or Yemen. That could be viewed as a war on Islam, which would exacerbate Saudi Arabia's internal pressures.

"If the United States bombs Afghanistan and somehow only hits bin Laden and his lieutenants, nobody in the Middle East will be upset," says Abunimah. "The danger is U.S. will kill lots of innocent people and those pictures will be splashed over satellite throughout the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia will be held responsible. Or the war goes on and America needs to bomb more targets and rolls out an attack on Iraq. That's not a situation Saudi Arabia wants to be in."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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