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September 11 one year on Tuesday, 27 August, 2002, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Strain shows on Saudi
President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah
US-Saudi relations have been difficult since the attacks
Frank Gardner

These are not easy times for Saudi Arabia. Being the world's biggest oil producer and exporter is small comfort when you are faced with a soaring population, falling per-capita income, and creeping unemployment. And that was before 11 September 2001.

Since the attacks on America last autumn, Saudi Arabia's ruling princes have had to come to terms with some uncomfortable facts.

Fifteen out of the 19 suicide hijackers turned out to be Saudis. The Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden, whom the authorities have long tried to ignore, has become an international household name.

Then in June this year the authorities announced that they had uncovered an al-Qaeda cell which they said had tried to fire a missile at US warplanes based south of the capital, Riyadh. Clearly, all is not well in the secretive desert kingdom

Rumours

Saudi Arabia's initial reaction to 11 September was one of denial. The Saudi Interior Ministry spoke cryptically of some "third force" being behind the attacks.


The resentment most Saudis feel at US policies in the Middle East has deepened

Moderate, professional Saudis clung to the hope that the culprit was some homegrown American extremist like Timothy McVeigh.

Meanwhile, street rumours spread that it was all a plot by the Israelis to make America declare war on the Arabs.

It was several months before the Saudi Government grudgingly admitted that its own citizens played a part in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people that day.

The US media, much of which has an open bias towards Israel, went to work on Saudi Arabia. Articles appeared accusing it of being a terrorist state, of being the ideological engine that drove al-Qaeda.

Mid-East dispute

There were calls from right-wing senators for Washington to break off ties with its biggest strategic partner in the Arab world.

The strain on US-Saudi ties has been enormous, especially as it is coupled with deep differences over how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

The charges levelled at Saudi Arabia have sometimes been exaggerated, but the Saudi authorities are not blameless.

They rightly point out that most of the plotters involved in the suicide hijackings had left their homeland some time ago, either to live in bleak camps in Afghanistan or under cover in Europe.

But why did they leave? Having absorbed Saudi Arabia's strict, fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, they looked around and found their country to be well short of the Islamic utopia they craved.

Thousands of princes were living in palaces, jetting off to Europe for the high life, while the slums of south Riyadh swelled with the growing ranks of the poor.

'Racial profiling'

Other than giving to charity there was almost nothing they could do to change this. In Saudi Arabia political dissent is totally banned. It goes underground or out of the country.

So how has Saudi Arabia changed since 11 September? In several ways. Its people have grown further apart from America and the West for a start. Saudis used to like going to the US for business and to Florida for their holidays, but not any more.

Stringent checks at US airports and the prospect of 'racial profiling' by US security have put many Saudis off going there. Saudi students are foresaking US colleges for ones in Europe, Lebanon or even their own ones at home.

US airport security
Stringent security checks have deterred some travellers
The resentment most Saudis feel at US policies in the Middle East has deepened, largely due to Washington's perceived bias towards Israel. Sales of many US products within the country have been falling.

Secondly, the Saudi authorities have become much more co-operative in tracking down al-Qaeda.

US officials say that the Saudis have been discreetly handing over data files and intelligence on suspected members, as well as helping to track the sources of terrorist funding.

Washington is not getting everything it wants - the Saudis still insist on doing all the interrogations themselves.

Admission

But for the FBI and CIA it is a huge improvement on the dark days of 1996 when the Saudis quickly executed the suspects behind the bombing of a US training mission in Riyadh before the Americans had a chance to put their questions to them.

But perhaps the most important change is that the Saudi authorities have effectively admitted for the first time that al-Qaeda has a presence in the country.

As recently as June 2002 they were denying this. "If there were any al-Qaeda sleeper cells here then we would have woken them up" was the quote attributed to the interior minister.

But just days later came the announcement that Saudi security had arrested a Sudanese, an Iraqi and several Saudis, all suspected of belonging to an al-Qaeda cell.

Difficult period

Parts of a surface-to-air missile were found near Prince Sultan Airbase where several thousand US airmen and women are based. The Saudi authorities claimed it as a triumph.

The Islamic opposition in London said the missile parts came with a message from al-Qaeda to the ruling princes: "We can strike you anytime anywhere."

Even if this is the last we hear of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, the country looks set to go through another difficult period when preparations begin for a US-led war on Iraq.

This will be no grand US-Arab coalition.

This time the Saudi princes may find it hard to contain the anger of their people at watching an Arab country, Iraq, being attacked by a superpower that enjoys a deep strategic relationship with their very own rulers.


New York despatches

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19 Jun 02 | Middle East
31 May 02 | Middle East
16 May 02 | Country profiles
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