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Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 11:25 GMT
Analysis: Tense times for Saudi Arabia
President Bush with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah
Ties have come under strain since 11 September

An air of crisis has surrounded Saudi Arabia and its ruling family since 11 September 2001.

All but four of the 19 men who carried out the suicide attacks are believed to have been Saudis and the man believed to be behind the attacks, Osama Bin Laden, was a Saudi citizen.


Wherever the Americans turn, when it comes to the number one issue for them today, somehow they find Saudis

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Newspaper editor
The most immediate consequence of this has been a serious deterioration in the close strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia that has endured for more than 50 years.

"Wherever the Americans turn, when it comes to the number one issue for them today, somehow they find Saudis," Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi and the editor of as-Sharq al-Awsat, one of the Arab world's leading newspapers, told BBC News Online.

Gregory Gause, a Saudi specialist at the University of Vermont in the US, agrees.

"With 15 of the 19 hijackers being from Saudi - a figure that every American now knows - Americans started looking at the relationship with a much more critical eye.

"On a political level, two important groups that had basically accepted the relationship as a strategic necessity became open opponents of the relationship: the neo-conservatives and the Christian right. These are two bedrock constituencies of the Republican Party," Mr Gause told BBC News Online.

'With us or against us'

And now, as the US gears up for war in Iraq, Saudi Arabia is again being pulled centre stage.

Its lack of public support for US ambitions in Iraq puts Saudi Arabia on the wrong side of President George W Bush's "you are either with us of against us" formulation.

So far, Riyadh has neither allowed US use of bases on its soil for a campaign against Iraq, nor absolutely discounted the possibility.


The US Government still very publicly supports the relationship with the Saud family, and vice versa, because both elites know the value of the relationship at a strategic level - oil and regional security are extremely important

Gregory Gause
Vermont University
"The Saudis cannot just open up their gates. They have a lot at stake. Saudi Arabia has the longest border with Iraq of any neighbour.

"Should the Americans decide tomorrow that there is not going to be a war in Iraq, the kingdom will be stuck with a difficult situation," Mr Rashed said.

"I think that the Saudis will eventually join the Americans once the war is really under way. They want to see concrete preparations for the war and international backing for it."

Support for al-Qaeda

If it backs Washington over Iraq, some analysts say the Saudi Government risks being swept away by a public backlash in a country where anti-American sentiment is rising and Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network are believed to be very popular.

Mr Rashed says this is alarmist.

"Support for al-Qaeda is certainly a great difficulty for the Saudi royal family, but it's an exaggeration to say that it can cause enough instability to overthrow them.

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden looms over deteriorating US-Saudi relations
"There is opposition in the mosques and there are fiery speeches denouncing the Americans and openly backing Bin Laden, but that's it at the moment."

Officially, Saudi Arabia blames pretty much all internal unrest on hostile elements from outside the kingdom.

A series of continuing small bomb attacks have been blamed on rivalries between Westerners trading in prohibited alcohol.

Many observers say they are attacks by Islamic militants targeted at the Western presence in the country.

However, the Saudi interior minister admitted for the first time in November 2002 that the authorities were holding about 100 Saudi nationals on terrorism-related charges.

This may be a sign that the government is getting serious about clamping down on its own militants.

Mixed signals

US officials have in private been scathing about the co-operation offered by the Saudi authorities in the US's "war on terror".

Mr Rashed believes the US is giving mixed signals on this.

"This a big mess. You have US agencies, such as the FBI, that are pleased with the level of co-operation they are getting. Then you have some (in the) defence department and some of the advisers at the White House who are very critical of Saudi Arabia. In the middle is the State Department.

Oil installation in eastern Saudi Arabia
Oil interests may well keep US-Saudi relations going
"The Saudi authorities are not clear or helpful when it comes to speaking to the media. The absence of official Saudi comment has complicated things. They have been misunderstood by the Americans."

Some in Washington believe Saudi Arabia is not doing all it can to stop funding to al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups.

Revelations that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington may have donated money that, perhaps inadvertently, made its way to the 11 September hijackers, have been very damaging.

Mr Gause does not believe this damage is irreparable.

"The US Government still very publicly supports the relationship with the Saud family, and vice versa, because both elites know the value of the relationship at a strategic level - oil and regional security are extremely important."

'The Iraqi option'

Though Saudi and US officials play this down, analysts have a theory that Washington sees Saudi Arabia as an increasingly unstable ally and is hoping to establish Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein, as an alternative source of cheap and plentiful oil.

US forces in Saudi Arabia
The removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia is Bin Laden's priority
Under this scenario, the privileged ally status that Saudi Arabia has enjoyed for more that 50 years would end, as US dependence on the kingdom declines.

In August this year, the influential Rand Corporation gave a startling briefing to the Pentagon which painted Saudi Arabia as an unstable source of terrorism.

The report suggested that the US military should seize the Saudi oilfields.

"For a very long time, I have not seen the Saudi officials as nervous and panicky and confused as they were just after that Pentagon briefing.

"US officials have since gone to great lengths to reassure the Saudis that what was said in the briefing was just a briefing, and that none of it was policy," Mr Rashed said.

Mr Gause also thinks that the US administration does not buy into the views expressed by the Rand briefing.

"This kind of loose talk about capturing oilfields is so easy to spout out in briefings or in opinion columns.

"Some people in the administration might be thinking along these lines, but it shows that they do not understand the world oil market.

"Iraqi oil will not 'belong' to the US after regime change. This is not the 1920s. And it is still hard to see down the line how the world can do without Saudi oil production."

See also:

28 Nov 02 | Middle East
03 Dec 02 | Middle East
26 Nov 02 | Middle East
24 Nov 02 | Americas
02 Nov 02 | Country profiles
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