USA and Saudi Arabia: A "special relationship" is rekindled
With an attack on Iraq imminent, the Saudis have once again done what was
expected of them--betrayal of Muslims on a grand scale. They have given a
go-ahead to the US to use Saudi soil to launch an attack on Baghdad.
John Bradley of Salon.Com writes about this rekindling of ties between the
US and Saudi Arabia.
Read and reflect.
That "special relationship," rekindled:
Saudi Arabia's decision to let the U.S. launch a U.N.-backed Iraq attack
from its bases there could be a big political win, now that Saddam Hussein
says he'll let weapons inspectors return.
By John Bradley
Sept. 17, 2002 | JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- 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
"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
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-à-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
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.