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Saudi Public Image Belies Cooperation with Allies  

By Omer Bin Abdullah *


The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaikh, has issued a ruling banning the killing of non-Muslims in Islamic countries. Ironically, the Saudi edict is signed by a descendant of a person who is now being blamed by every Western "expert" on Islam and terrorism, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the reformer being charged for initiating "Wahhabism".

These are soothing words for the estimated 60,000 Americans and Britons living in Saudi Arabia perhaps, but a leading Saudi dissident, Saad al-Faqih, who heads the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform, told the BBC that the Grand Mufti would have been ordered to say these words by the government. Such a claim cannot be discounted because the need for such a ruling seems so redundant when the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad (SWT) expressly provides the same guidance.

Interestingly, however, al-Shaikh added that people should not be punished for a mistake that others have committed - in other words, however angry some Saudis may feel about the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, they should not vent their anger upon Western nationals within Saudi.

The Saudi government is acutely aware of the unpopularity of its close relationship with the U.S., and it is such cooperation that irks the younger generation, and has even driven some like Osama bin Ladin to revolt. However, the al-Sa'ud family has defied popular opinion by both continuing to allow U.S. forces to be based on their soil, and by quietly supporting America's campaign against terror.

London's conservative Sunday Times on October 28, said: "The Saudi ruling family has been so disturbed at the scale of the involvement of some of its citizens that it has given a team of FBI agents unprecedented access to interviews with suspected detainees and they have been allowed to collect statements from relatives and acquaintances of the hijackers."

The Saudis are acutely aware who has the pulse on their oil, and have maintained a consistent record of working alongside the U.S. and Britain. They assisted the Reagan administration by sending $2 million a month to the Nicaraguan Contras as part of the Iran-Contra scheme, executed the joint U.S.-Saudi plan to supply arms to the Afghan mujahideen fighters, and then brokered the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Over the past decade, the Saudis have spent an estimated $170 billion for military equipment. Last summer, the Saudis also awarded contracts potentially worth $50 billion to upgrade the kingdom's gas production facilities. The vast majority of those sales and contracts went to U.S. companies, and of course served the royal family's interests, whom receive large commissions for setting up such deals.

The Saudis have a well-organized internal intelligence system and are fully up-to-date on public sentiment, plus of course, they get enough feedback from their open court where anyone can come visit the royals.

Saudi cooperation with the U.S. notwithstanding, right-wing partisans in Western media continue a merciless onslaught against them. At issue is not only the alleged "lack of cooperation" on part of the Saudis, but also more importantly their funding of Islamic projects such as the building of masjids (mosques) and charitable organizations. The cost of the formal inauguration of a Los Angles mosque was nearly as much as it cost them to build it. Such public relations events are deeply tied to Saudi efforts at maintaining their claims to Islamic leadership - the Saudi king and crown prince call themselves the servant and deputy servant, respectively, of the Two Holy Mosques.

The Saudis are also deeply aware of public sentiment and have issued brave statements ostensibly aimed at quieting unrest at home while at the same time trying to preserve their claim as the leader of the Islamic world.

Their bravado has been stated in carefully calculated terms: "We will stand by our innocent citizens," Prince Nayef, the interior minister and official leading the Saudi investigations, said October 17.

Although the sprawling Sultan bin Abdulaziz military base is crucial in keeping Iraq under constant bombardment, the Saudi defense minister, whose name the facility bears, was quick to declare: "We do not accept the presence in our country of a single soldier at war with Muslims or Arabs." Of course, the prince conveniently forgot to mention that the main attack on Iraq in 1991 came from U.S. military units moving overland from Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom also refused to receive America's global ambassador, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during his tour of the region, and no one, neither Washington nor London, raised an eyebrow, allowing Riyadh to shine in its act of "courage".

Nor was there any criticism when Interior Minister Nayef, one of the most powerful members of the Saudi monarchy, declared, "There were more than 600 passengers on the four hijacked planes," he said. "We are still wondering why they have singled out Arabs, especially Saudis."

However, he soon followed by announcing, "We are not at all happy with the situation," adding "this in no way means we are not willing to confront terrorism."

Despite the economic downturn stated in sections of the foreign press, the Saudi citizen is still well provided for, and at the same time his economic well-being is closely tied to the government, read the royal family.

According to the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom spent some $500 billion on development, with perhaps $50 billion misappropriated. However, a good portion was spent in the kingdom and served to enrich a class that had the contacts to put their hands in the till, and from there, it trickled down. Thus, the Saudis do not confront a grassroots opposition like the one faced by impoverished Pakistan, where the already downtrodden have been deeply affected by the war next door. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is no doubt walking a tightrope, trying to appease both international and domestic sentiment.

In today's interconnected world, the younger Saudi generation is reading the world press. Given this, they may be upset over the bad press their country is getting in the West, and it was with the Bush administration's acknowledgement of the domestic unease within Saudi Arabia that Bush was at pains to point out to Crown Prince Abdullah that "press articles citing differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia are simply incorrect," and that he was "very pleased" with Saudi help in the war against terrorism.

After all this war on terrorism is taking aim at those who not only abhor the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, but the presence of the royals in power in Riyadh as well.

Saudi cooperation with the U.S. may help the rulers cut back the power of the religious lobby increasingly ill at ease over the indulgent ways of the monarchy. The royal clan, numbering in the thousands, springing forth from Abdulaziz and his kin's 100 children, consider the state treasury their personal piggybank. The Saudi clan needs U.S. protection and the U.S. needs the Saudis to keep religious fervor within bounds so as not to generate the spirit to call for a change based on Islamic values. Both the U.S. and the royal family know that a change in Saudi Arabia will only bring to power Muslims who resent the corruption and waste of the royal clan.

The continued Saudi claim to its "Islamic credentials" also works in America's favor, because a friend with such clout can serve much better, especially in keeping the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) from becoming an activist body.

The House of Saud will survive this latest test of its balancing skills. The decision to don its Islamic, rather than Western, cap was a wise one. But the U.S. knows that as the gulf between Islamic and Western perceptions and interests grows, keeping a foot in both camps will become that much harder for their ally.


* Editor – ISNA's Horizons magazine 

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