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Oil Isn't All the Saudis Offer

January 31, 2002|RICHARD HRAIR DEKMEJIAN | Richard Hrair Dekmejian is a professor of political science at USC and author of "Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World" (Syracuse University, 1995) and "Troubled Waters: Geopolitics of the Caspian Region" (I.B. Tauris, 2002).

Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, U.S.-Saudi relations have been under extreme stress. After a half-century of cooperation and friendship, the giant oil kingdom and the world's biggest superpower are fast reaching a point of crisis, unless both take steps to decrease tension.

After months of reticence, Saudi Arabia took a first step last week when Crown Prince Abdullah reached out to the U.S. to make amends about the role of Saudi citizens in the September attacks.

"[Osama] bin Laden is a deviant, regardless of his nationality," he said in an interview with the New York Times and Washington Post. Bin Laden's objective, the prince added, "was to drive a wedge between the kingdom and the United States."

But, at the same time, the prince voiced his concerns about the drift of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The U.S., he said, "has a duty to follow its conscience to reject repression" of the Palestinians.

Clearly, Saudi public opinion is strongly opposed to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and to the maintenance of close ties with the U.S., particularly in view of the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation. To be able to justify to their own people their close relationship with the U.S., the Saudis want to see a decisive peacemaking role by the Bush administration to stop the bloodshed in the Mideast and resume an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Given unfavorable popular sentiments within Saudi Arabia, the country's leadership is taking a risk in continuing its pro-American stance.

While it is true that the country still needs a U.S. guarantee to defend itself against regional enemies, such as Iraq, the risk of its alliance with the U.S. could become unmanageable as a threat to a regime's legitimacy and power. Then, self-interest would require a change in policy.

For example, the kingdom's self-interest could prompt it to refuse the United State use of its bases to attack Iraq, should it decide to do so. Such an attack would likely trigger a convulsion in the region that would be a disaster for both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

As for the United States, it is imperative that the Saudis make changes in the kingdom's conservative educational system and religious socialization--the system that gave birth to Bin Laden and his followers, including 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks--and further curtail financial aid to Islamist extremist groups abroad.

Despite the negative tenor of the American media and public opinion about Saudi Arabia, it should be understood that the United States and Saudi Arabia need each other and that there are no good alternatives.

Any harm to Saudi rule would be ruinous for all concerned--the United States, the West and the Islamic world.

Moreover, there is no substitute for Saudi oil for the foreseeable future. And none of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries or neighboring Arab states would permit a United States military presence as an alternative to Saudi bases, at least not under the present circumstances. But to alleviate concerns within Saudi Arabia, it would be best for the United States to maintain a lower military profile with fewer soldiers, while seeking Saudi cooperation against terrorism.

In view of the serious strategic and economic implications of a rupture between Saudi Arabia and the United States, both must take preventive measures to strengthen their commonality of interests. Yet the ultimate fate of the special relationship may well depend on whether the United States can broker a peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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