Sunday's announcement by Saudi Arabia foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal that the kingdom will allow the United States to use its bases for an attack on Iraq, if such an attack gets U.N. backing, has been greeted by a curious combination of disbelief and stolid realism by ordinary Saudis.
The Saudi foreign minister also urged Iraq Sunday to quickly allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to head off a Security Council resolution that could open the way for military attacks. Saddam Hussein's surprise decision late Monday to allow weapons inspectors to return unconditionally could defuse the risk to the Saudi rulers, giving Al-Faisal all the benefits of making a politically brave stance to support the U.S. without having to go through with it.
Ever since Iraq was labeled part of President Bush's "axis of evil," Saudis have been listening to their government state that it is opposed to a U.S.-led attack because it would destabilize the whole region and be against U.S. interests. The fact that Prince Saud usually emphasized that he was talking about a unilateral U.S. attack without a U.N. mandate was lost among the Saudi masses happy that their government was articulating their sentiments. That has now changed, and the gulf between Saudi public opinion and the policy declarations of the Saudi government on this issue is wide.
Not all Saudi newspapers carried the foreign minister's statement on Monday. However, those that did predictably backed the decision. A front-page editorial in the mass-circulation Al-Riyadh, for instance, concluded that "Iraq will be the only loser if it does not allow inspectors to return. There is no powerful country that can stop the U.S. apart from Iraq itself. Only Saddam can take the noose from around his own neck by accepting America's conditions."
"Of course I'm unhappy, but what can I do?" asked a 21-year-old student at Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University, who would only be identified by his surname, al-Ghamdi. "We saw all the Arab countries stick together against an attack. It was a sign of real pan-Arabism. And now they're all backing down, one by one."
Al-Ghamdi was referring to the Arab League summit last March, in which Arab foreign ministers voted unanimously to oppose a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq.
Like most young Saudis, al-Ghamdi is in no mood to hear that his government has given its tacit approval to a U.S. attack on Iraq. But at the same time, he and his friends are highly unlikely to go public with their dissenting arguments. Demonstrations are banned here, and extremely rare. Revolution is not in the air.
Since the history of this region has been largely defined by wheeling, dealing and horse trading, with America in the bargaining seat, it seems possible that the Bush administration made a promise of concessions to the Saudis to get their support. The Regent, Crown Prince Abdullah, has been consistent in his support of the Palestinian cause and his criticism of Israel's alleged human rights abuses and disregard for international law. His peace initiative launched earlier this year, calling for recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, gained universal Arab support. It has since lost its momentum, to the point of being sidelined. Whether or not Bush has made promises, genuine or otherwise, on the Israeli issue in the context of Prince Saud's statement is at this stage pure speculation.
And while there is no love lost for Saddam Hussein in Saudi Arabia, there is seething resentment at U.S. foreign policy in the region vis-`-vis its perceived unconditional support for Israel. Many of the young here -- over half the Saudi population is under 15 years of age -- still display an ambiguous response to the Sept. 11 attacks and their fallout. Yes, the attacks were "haram" (religiously forbidden by Islam) and have since allowed America to grow stronger, they concede; but at least, they add in a whisper, America got a slap in the face. Mention the legitimacy of a U.N. resolution when talking about Prince Saud's statement, and the young throw back at you the failure of Israel to abide by U.N. resolutions. The Zionist state has threatened to use weapons of mass destruction in the recent past if provoked, they argue, so why doesn't America launch attacks on Israel from Saudi bases?
For Saudis, an attack on Iraq is exclusively about American hegemony in the Middle East and the control of its oil reserves. Expressing a popular belief, Khalid Al-Batarfi, managing editor of Al-Madinah newspaper, wrote in an article to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary that an attack on Iraq, coupled with America's control of gas reserves in the Caspian, will leave Saudi Arabia vulnerable to subsequent assault because the U.S. economy will no longer be in such need of Saudi oil.
A former CEO of an oil refinery, also speaking in Jeddah, articulated the liberal viewpoint: "I understand what the young people and newspaper columnists are saying, but we're in an untenable position. We have to live in the real world. We abide by U.N. resolutions because we're a part of the U.N. The U.S. is going to attack Iraq whether we object or not."
Tariq Al-Homayed, 32, a local political correspondent for the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat, agreed: "If you want to make the rules, you have to play the game. Saudi Arabia cannot help Iraq if Iraq doesn't want to help itself."
In a sense, the Saudi government is overriding hostile public opinion on Iraq in the same way that the Bush administration has been ignoring calls for it to break its ties with Saudi Arabia. That "special 60-year-old relationship" is, it would appear, as strong as ever. And following what the regent has termed a "smear campaign" against Saudi Arabia by the American press in the wake of the realization that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from here, the country has in a real sense never been more unified. Liberals abandoned their reform agenda to run to what they saw as the front lines to defend the kingdom.
Extremists do exist -- Saudi Arabia has arrested 13 members of al-Qaida -- but they represent the views of a minority. The prevailing sense is that Saudi Arabia is under attack, and that in times of war, even a media war, it is one's duty to rally around the flag.
The kingdom is certainly not going to risk its friendship with America to defend a neighbor who in 1990 fired scud missiles into the country, in the first such attack on its soil since Saudi Arabia was unified in 1932. Saddam has repeatedly condemned Saudi and other Arab leaders as American puppets. In the last year there has been much related talk in the Western media about how the Saudi monarchy cannot afford to seem too close to the U.S. for fear of provoking their fundamentalist opponents at home. This is presumably one reason why it made its decision to back the U.S. only on the clear understanding that it gets U.N. support. Now Saudi Arabia can say it is united with the world against Iraq, and not allied against Iraq with the U.S. And it has the added advantage that this is indeed the truth.
The real issue for the Saudi government is economic stability. Unemployment is conservatively estimated at 17 percent; the per capita income is now $8,000 compared to $24,000 in the 1980s; and Saudi Arabia has one of the highest populations growth rates in the world. The kingdom has stated that it will make up any shortfall in oil supplies during any war, so actually seems likely to gain economically from an attack on Iraq. It simply does not have the economic clout to make a unilateral stand against the U.S. even if it wanted to.
In the end, it's the same old story. The Saudi government is doing what is necessary to guarantee, at least in the short term, its own security, as are the leaders of every other Arab state. Public opinion is at best shown token consideration. The Arab street, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, may be seething with emotional anger. But it was when Israel occupied Arab land after the Six Days' War in 1967. It was during the war against Iraq in 1990. And it was when NATO bombed Afghanistan in 2001. But the Arab governments are still with us, and they will likely weather this latest predicted storm.