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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 May, 2003, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Analysis: Saudi Arabia under fire
By Tarik Kafala
BBC News Online

Saudi Arabia's refusal openly to host US troops during the Iraq war and the subsequent decision to withdraw nearly all US military personnel from the kingdom was meant to neutralise the chief complaint of radical Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda.

Bomb attack scene in Riyadh
Four almost simultaneous attacks hit Western targets in Riyadh
Osama Bin Laden's declaration of jihad against Jews and Crusaders in 1998 read: "First, the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours."

The US presence was unpopular far beyond the militants prepared to use violence. It was a source of humiliation to many Saudis that they were so dependent on the US.

More than 50 years of American military presence in the kingdom is due to end later this year. At its height, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, this presence ran to hundreds of thousands of troops.

The attack really shows that the Americans were just an excuse... The people behind these attacks, whether al-Qaeda or anyone else, are clearly seeking political power in Saudi Arabia
Mohammad al-Khereiji
Saudi Arab News
In the recent Iraq war, the kingdom officially offered no support to the coalition, though about 10,000 US personnel were believed to be stationed there.

Though the US military presence may be ending, about 30,000 US citizens will remain - some working in military training capacities, others in defence and aeronautic industries. Tens of thousands of Europeans, Canadians, Japanese and other expatriates also work in Saudi Arabia.

Monday's attack may have been intended to drive even these people out.

Militants seeking power

The attacks may also have been aimed at undermining the royal family, or even part of a wider campaign to depose it.

"The attack really shows that the Americans were just an excuse - scapegoats," Mohammad al-Khereiji, a political analyst at the Saudi Arab News, told BBC News Online.

"The people behind these attacks, whether al-Qaeda or anyone else, are clearly seeking political power in Saudi Arabia and are playing the religious terrorism card."

There is no question in my mind that al-Qaeda has very strong sympathisers in the Saudi interior ministry. The very people who are meant to be cracking down on al-Qaeda-related terrorism are actually sympathetic to it
Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent
Mohammad al-Khereiji says that most Saudis are shocked and angry at the attacks.

"If the Saudi authorities were to lead a big security clampdown against the attackers, this would be very popular here."

This is pretty much the official Saudi view - that the attackers are extremists using terrorism and Islamic ideology to try to achieve political ends.

Other analysts say there is widespread support and sympathy for al-Qaeda and similar groups among ordinary citizens and inside the security services.

Bungled arms seizure

Earlier in May, the Saudi security services trumpeted the discovery of a criminal and terrorist cell alleged to be linked to al-Qaeda.

Nearly 400 kilos of explosives, high-velocity rifles and tens of thousands of US dollars were apparently found, but all 19 men wanted in connection with the raid escaped.

BBC security analyst Frank Garner says the escape of all suspects in the raid is highly suspicious.

"There is no question in my mind that al-Qaeda has very strong sympathisers in the Saudi interior ministry. The very people who are meant to be cracking down on al-Qaeda-related terrorism are actually sympathetic to it," he says.

According to this analysis, the Saudi rulers face an indigenous and widely supported challenge from a militant Islam that wants to see the kingdom become more conservative or fundamentalist, and completely sever its ties with the West.

Saudi cut adrift?

The other great fear among pro-Western Saudis is that the withdrawal of US forces signals a downgrading of US-Saudi relations.

These ties have been deeply troubled since the 11 September attacks. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 men suspected of carrying out the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

For both sides, the cost of the relationship appeared to be more costly that it was worth.

With the US pursuing the coalition occupation of Iraq, there is a perception of Saudi Arabia being cut adrift by Washington.

The widespread unpopularity of the war in the Middle East, many analysts fear, can only add to al-Qaeda's support, just as the US withdrawal from Saudi Arabia may be interpreted as its victory.




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