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FRIENDSHIP, SAUDI-STYLE

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

Some of the world's most offensive contemporary fiction is being produced by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Consider the mainstream Saudi newspaper Al-Jazeera, which recently asserted that terrorism against the United States does not stem from Islamist extremism with roots in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, the paper explained, "the curricula in the Western schools . . . show that the West itself trains terrorists." (The translation is by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute, and can be found on its web site, www.memri.org).

According to Al-Jazeera, which like all Saudi papers is government-controlled, many US and British schools assign "a book called 'The Mission,' put out by Express Publishing House in Britain." One chapter describes a "scenario in which terrorists hijack a plane and crash it into a nuclear reactor. This made a director of a nuclear reactor in the U.S. take a light plane and crash it into the reactor to see what would happen."

What's more, the book describes "an American research study in which anthrax was sprayed from the southern end of Manhattan. . . . Half of those exposed to the virus became ill, and half of those who became ill died. The number of victims exceeded 600,000."

Planes crashing into nuclear plants? Anthrax research that killed 600,000 New Yorkers? Textbooks that promote terrorism? To Americans, this bizarre confection is laughable, and the claim that it is taught in US schools is absurd on its face.

But it probably didn't seem absurd to the readers of Al-Jazeera, to whom it was presented as a factual rebuttal to a slur on Muslim honor. What does it say about the government of Saudi Arabia that it uses its mass media to disseminate such dishonest, anti-American trash?

More fiction:

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of international efforts in fighting terrorism and for combating money-laundering activities," announces a report released by the Saudi embassy in Washington. It expresses Saudi pride at having been a "leader" in the campaign "to identify and freeze terrorist assets quickly through international cooperation."

If brazenness were an Olympic event, the Saudis would win the gold. Far from having been "at the forefront" of freezing terrorists' access to money, they have been among the leading obstacles to doing so. Their recalcitrance was such a problem that delegations of senior American officials had to be sent to Riyadh last month to plead for Saudi cooperation. In its current issue, US News and World Report says that while some progress was made, "it was like pulling teeth."

"First, the Saudis had balked at freezing bank accounts Washington said were linked to terrorists. Then they demanded proof that Saudi-funded charities were funneling money to terrorists. On Dec. 8, the first day of [one] delegation's visit, Prince Nayef, the interior minister, was telling reporters he still did not even believe that 15 of the 19 Sep. 11 hijackers were Saudis."

Nayef, by the way, shows promise as an author of Saudi fiction. "It's true that Saudi citizens were in the planes," he was saying more than three months after the mass-murders in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, "but who can be certain whether they were behind the attacks?"

The flying lessons those Saudis took argues for their innocence, Nayef claims."To pilot planes of this caliber," he told an interviewer, "requires more than being a beginner." As for the will found in Mohammed Atta's luggage -- the one exhorting the men to "welcome death for the sake of Allah" -- it proves nothing, Nayef says. "Almost every Muslim writes a will before embarking on a plane or a boat journey."

The line from the Bush administration is that the Saudis are loyal allies who have been most cooperative in the war on terrorism. Diplomatic sweet-talk has its place in international affairs, but not when it becomes a substitute for clear thought. The Saudis are not loyal allies and they have not been most cooperative. What does Washington gain by pretending otherwise?

The Saudi government seems quite unfazed by the fact that the savagery that sent so many innocents to their deaths on Sept. 11 was carried out by Saudi citizens, incubated with Saudi money, and rooted in Saudi religious extremism. On the three-month anniversary of those attacks, foreign leaders worldwide attended memorial ceremonies sponsored by American embassies. But in Saudi Arabia, Douglas Jehl reported in The New York Times, there was no public acknowledgement of any kind:

"The only event known to have taken place in the kingdom was a one-minute moment of silence late Tuesday afternoon at the United States Embassy in Riyadh, which no Saudi officials attended."

For too long we have pretended that Saudi Arabia is our fast friend and a key to stability in the Middle East. In truth, it is neither. It's time we left the fictions to Riyadh, and adjusted our foreign policy to the real world.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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