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THE ATTACK IN SAUDI ARABIA

Stakes Are Too High for U.S. Pullout

Diplomacy: Saudi Arabia's oil and geographic location make it an important ally.

June 27, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Islamic militants killed 241 American service members with a car bomb in Beirut 13 years ago, the U.S. government quickly pulled its remaining troops out of Lebanon and abandoned efforts to shore up the government of that beleaguered Middle Eastern country.

But don't look for anything like that in the wake of the truck bombing that shattered a U.S. Air Force housing compound in eastern Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The stakes in the U.S.-Saudi relationship seem far too high for that.

"We have worked in close partnership with the Saudis for a long time--since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt," President Clinton said Wednesday. "And I think it would be a mistake for the United States to basically change its mission because of this."

For more than five decades, since Roosevelt conferred with Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz aboard a warship in the Suez Canal during the closing days of World War II, the United States has pursued an economic, strategic and political relationship with the kingdom.

In 1945, Washington's interest was in gaining a foothold in the Persian Gulf region to further its war effort. Shortly after the Roosevelt-Abdulaziz meeting, the United States began construction of an air base at Dhahran, the predecessor to the facility where the truck bomb was detonated. But the war was over before the base was completed.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been a foundation of the foreign policy of both countries ever since, despite the political differences between the West's most powerful democracy and a secretive, absolute Arabian monarchy.

Since the downfall of another U.S.-backed monarch--Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran--in 1979, Saudi Arabia has been Washington's closest ally in the oil-rich region and the primary counterweight to unfriendly governments in Iran and Iraq.

It is almost impossible to overestimate Saudi Arabia's economic and geographic significance. About one-quarter the size of the continental United States, Saudi Arabia takes up 80% of the Arabian Peninsula, which puts it in a dominant position with respect to its much smaller neighbors.

As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Saudi Arabia also plays a pivotal role in the entire Islamic world. A devout Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, at least once in his or her lifetime.

Saudi Arabia's economic dominance is based on oil. Beneath the kingdom's harsh desert terrain is a lake of crude oil estimated at more than 260 billion barrels, about one-quarter of the world's known reserves. Fully 10% of all oil consumed in the United States originates in Saudi Arabia. In Japan and among U.S. allies in Europe, the proportion is much higher.

More than 95% of Saudi oil is produced by Aramco, a company created by a consortium of U.S. oil firms but now the property of the Saudi government. However, Americans still hold many key Aramco positions, from the oil fields to the boardroom.

From Saudi Arabia's standpoint, its relationship with the United States is of vital importance. Since 1953, American forces have been training, supporting and selling sophisticated arms to the Saudi military. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in August 1990, the United States led the international coalition that stopped the Iraqi advance.

Nevertheless, relations between the two countries have never been really smooth. The United States is appalled at Saudi violations of human rights, and the traditional Islamic kingdom considers Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, to be hopelessly immoral.

In a recent report, the State Department condemned Saudi Arabia for abuse of prisoners; severe restrictions on free speech, the press and religion; systematic discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities; and suppression of workers' rights.

But in the wake of the Dhahran bombing, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said Wednesday: "We've had in the past some critical things to say about Saudi Arabia. [But] we don't want to emphasize our differences with that great nation. We want to stand with them, as they're standing with us, and work with them to combat this kind of terrorism."

Administration officials said the United States decided years ago that its relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important to be sacrificed to scruples about the human rights abuses of its authoritarian government. For one thing, these officials said, the Saudi monarchy is probably far more progressive than an elected government would be, much as the shah's repressive regime in Iran now seems benign compared to the elected government that followed it.

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