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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 02:23 GMT
Strains show in US-Saudi ties


For the United States it is one of the most important partnerships in the world - perhaps the most important - but the relationship with Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble.

Across the political spectrum in Washington there is a deep bitterness towards Saudi Arabia.


With a possible war with Iraq on the horizon, Saudi Arabia's strategic importance to the United States has never been more important.

It is about much more than the simple fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 11 September 2001 attacks were Saudis.

It is about more than the alleged terrorist funding that comes from Saudi Arabia.

The United States feels it has not been rewarded for saving Saudi Arabia when Saddam Hussein invaded its neighbour, Kuwait, in 1990.

Differences

And suddenly it is not so easy to turn a blind eye to the deep cultural differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In a recent Congressional committee hearing, for example, the democrat Tom Lantos berated the Saudis for their lack of gratitude. If it were not for the Americans, he said, the House of Saud would now be reduced to a villa on the French Riviera.

Attack on the World Trade Center
Most of the 11 September hijackers were Saudi
His colleague Barney Frank attacked Saudi Arabia for having "one of the worst human rights records in the world".

The former head of the CIA, Jim Woolsey, one of the leading right wing voices in Washington, even suggested Americans might drive more fuel-efficient cars, in order to reduce their dependency on Saudi oil. In the Bush Republican party the very idea is almost heresy!

Damage limitation

So now, the suggestion that Saudi Arabia may not be pulling its weight in the war on terror is causing deep concern in the administration.

The damage limitation operation is in full swing.

The latest allegation is that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, may have made donations that made their way, probably inadvertently, to the 11 September hijackers.

This was the response on Wednesday of the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell:

"I've known Prince Bandar and Her Royal Highness for close to 23 years. They're old friends of mine... I think it most unlikely that either Prince Bandar or Princess Haifa would knowingly provide money to individuals or organizations that were conducting terrorist activities."

Yet this is a fire that is proving hard to extinguish.

Only a couple of days after those allegations surfaced, sources within this usually tight-lipped American administration suggested that Saudi Arabia had been given an ultimatum demanding it do more to cut off funding for terrorist groups.

Little things

Once again official denials have failed to silence the questions.

It is the little things that really seem to infuriate Americans.

The idea that American women, stationed in Saudi Arabia to help defend that country, are encouraged to follow a dress code that the Taliban would agree with.


The damage limitation operation is in full swing

Or take these recent comments about President George W Bush, by the Saudi ambassador to London, in an article in Al Hayat newspaper:

"If we take into account the Freudian problems, of which no family is free, one example of many is W.'s [President Bush's] past alcoholism and his father's disappointment with him. Another is the problem of the widespread belief that his younger brother is smarter and more talented than him. We will come to understand that his desire to prove that he has come of age is uncontrollable.''

Those sort of comments do not go down very well here.

Yet with a possible war with Iraq on the horizon, Saudi Arabia's strategic importance to the United States has never been more important.

It is not just the world's largest oil producer, by far. It is also a supplier willing to work with the United States to prevent oil prices going through the roof.

Needed partner

Saudi Arabia has a vast, spare, oil-producing capacity it can switch on with the turn of a spigot - something it has been willing to do to keep prices stable at times of crisis.

Then there are those military bases used by the Americans. When a senior Saudi official appeared to suggest recently that they might not be available for war against Iraq, the Americans rushed to the phones to make sure they had misheard.


It is the little things that really seem to infuriate Americans

For all those reasons, Colin Powell will continue to leave his door wide open whenever the Saudis want to call.

Crown Prince Abdullah, who effectively runs Saudi Arabia, will find he is never short of invitations to President Bush's Texas ranch.

But the strains in this more than 50-year-old alliance are clearly beginning to show.

And that, of course, is exactly what Osama Bin Laden intended.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

27 Nov 02 | Middle East
26 Nov 02 | Middle East
24 Nov 02 | Americas
03 Nov 02 | Middle East
17 Oct 02 | Middle East
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