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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 22:19 GMT 23:19 UK
Saudi leaders fear Muslim backlash
Mecca, the holiest Muslim city
Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Mecca
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Saudi Arabia has promised to co-operate fully with the United States following President Bush's declaration of a war against terrorism.

But at the same time senior Saudi officials have urged the US to pursue justice rather than vengeance - and are reluctant to be seen giving military co-operation to the Americans.

This is not the first time the Saudi rulers have found themselves caught between loyalty to their most important ally and solidarity with other Muslim nations.

A decade ago, Muslim opinion was badly divided over American military intervention against Iraq.

Saudi Arabia's fateful decision to invite half-a-million US troops onto Saudi soil led, in the end, to the defeat of Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait.

Fierce criticism

But it also unleashed a wave of unprecedentedly fierce criticism of the Saudi ruling family, both inside and outside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia
Public opinion may become a factor

Now, 10 years on, the Saudi princes face an even more uncomfortable dilemma. Once again their American ally is pressing them for the maximum support.

But this time the enemy is not the Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein - a secular Arab nationalist - but a radical Saudi-born Islamist, Osama Bin Laden.

Bin Laden has become a hate figure in America, but many Muslims, including some Saudi Muslims, regard him as a hero for waging holy war against the American superpower.

In only two respects are the Saudi rulers ready to co-operate with President Bush. They are willing to give verbal support to his war on terrorism; indeed the most senior princes have already done so.

Oil factor

And they are ready to keep their oil flowing, since it is in their interest to do so.

Foreign minister Saud al Faisal
Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has urged the US to seek justice

This could prove important if any military action, in or near the Middle East, causes a sudden price rise - which oil analysts regard as highly likely.

Any contraction of supply, coupled with rising prices, would cause real pain to a world economy already hovering on the brink of recession.

But if Washington wants more, the Saudis won't necessarily be so forthcoming.

The Americans would like to use the newly-installed command centre at Al-Kharj, a Saudi base some 70km miles south of the capital Riyadh that is already home to 5,000 US troops.

For the Saudis, this is a highly sensitive issue.

While not altogether ruling out use of the command centre, Saudi officials have made it clear that they do not want their country used as a launch-pad for military operations against an Arab or Muslim state.

'Custodian of Islam'

The Saudi ruling family bases its legitimacy on Islam. It wants to be seen as the worthy custodian of Mecca and Medina - the two holiest places in Islam.

US apache helicopters in Saudi Arabia
The stationing of US forces in Saudi Arabia has angered many Muslims

It has sought to buttress its claim to leadership in the Muslim world by giving generous economic aid to the poorer Muslim states, and by its sponsorship of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC)

The OIC brings together 56 Muslim countries and seeks to give substance to the cherished notion of Muslim solidarity.

This means Saudi officials have to be especially sensitive to popular feeling in the Muslim world.

And, at the moment, the mood among many Muslims is strongly anti-American. One of the main reasons is that the US is seen as staunchly supporting Israel against the Palestinians.

The year-long intifada, with its heavy toll of Palestinian lives, has produced strong reactions throughout the Muslim world.

Even the normally restrained Saudi media has become far more critical of what many Muslims see as America's silence and passivity.

'Justice, not vengeance'

A second burning issue is Iraq. America is seen as the driving-force behind the maintenace of stringent United Nations sanctions - sanctions that are seen as punishing innocent Iraqi civilians, rather than the Baghdad regime.

All this helps to explain why, a few days after the attacks of 11 September, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, pointedly urged the Bush administration to pursue justice rather than vengeance.

The Saudi rulers are fearful that reckless action, especially if it led to civilian casualties, would leave them vulnerable to criticism - and perhaps even revive the kind of outspoken Islamist opposition they faced at the time of the Gulf War.

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