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Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Saudi Arabia feels the strain
President George Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah
Saudi Arabia is an increasingly reluctant partner

The fashionable new drink in Saudi Arabia is Zam Zam Cola. The Iranian produced alternative to Coca Cola is flying off the shelves in Saudi supermarkets as shoppers refuse to buy American products.

American exports to Saudi Arabia have fallen by a third this year. Private polling for the Saudi royal family is reported to suggest that a majority of young Saudis sympathise with Osama Bin Laden's world view.


The Saudi royal family are terrified of the reaction on the streets if they do go to war alongside the US

So the Saudi leadership is extremely nervous about how much support to give the United States.

First, Washington was told it could not use bases on Saudi territory to launch an assault on Iraq.

Then, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this was possible, but only as part of a campaign expressly approved by the United Nations.

It is all in marked contrast to the Gulf War of 1990-91.

For instance, while the United States talks of war, the Saudis have given the go-ahead for a big delegation of businessmen to visit Baghdad for the first time since the two countries cut ties after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Israeli tank, West Bank
The US must do more to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say many Saudis

Up to 70 firms are expected to go to the Baghdad fair, a Saudi official said, signing contracts worth $250m in anticipation of an expected decision soon to reopen the land border between the two countries, closed since 1990.

Why is this happening?

Against stiff competition, Saudi Arabia is among the least democratic of the Arab states, without even an elected parliament in an advisory role.

Yet the Saudi royal family does listen to public opinion. In fact, like rulers throughout the Middle East, they are terrified of the reaction on the streets if they do go to war alongside the US.

Many Arab states fear that Saddam's regime might not be the only one changed if there is war.

Fear of uprisings

The Saudi-US alliance is based on the understanding that the US acts as the protector of last resort for the royal house of Saud in exchange for keeping the oil flowing steadily and at affordable prices.

But the Arab world is seething with anger over American support for Israel. If the Saudi royal family's security is threatened from within, it is because of its status as a trusted ally of the US.

In Saudi Arabia, the most extreme scenario would see riots and an internal coup replacing the pro-Western monarchy with populist, anti-American, Islamic fundamentalists in the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.

Saud Al-Faisal
Saud Al-Faisal: Warned the US
But change in Saudi Arabia is far more likely to be evolutionary than revolutionary.

Still, the Saudi royals remember the precedent of the Iranian revolution, where the Americans could not save the Shah.

So even in the country's tightly controlled media, the questioning has begun of the US-Saudi alliance.

"We must question those who think that the US is our strategic option and that there is no alternative to it," said the Saudi daily newspaper al-Riyadh.

Uneasy ally

Matters have not been helped by the launching of a trillion dollar law suit on behalf of the 11 September victims, which names among the defendants three prominent members of the Saudi royal family.

Relations were also damaged by the leaking of a research paper circulating in the Pentagon that described Saudi Arabia as the "kernel of evil".

Israeli tank, West Bank
The US must do more to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say many Saudis

Until the Americans are seen to do more to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Saudi leaders have made clear they are wary of undermining their own legitimacy at home by helping Washington invade another Arab state.

Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, met President Bush earlier this year, to spell out the linkage demanded by most Arab rulers: First make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, then talk to us about Iraq.

"There is a lot of anger at the US for what is perceived as a lack of restraining (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon.

"The Crown Prince wanted to make sure the president was aware of this," Saudi adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, told reporters.

Saudi Arabia is a US ally, but when it comes to Iraq, it is a reluctant one.


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10 Sep 02 | Business
01 Sep 02 | Middle East
27 Aug 02 | September 11 one year on
28 Aug 02 | Middle East
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