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

January 31, 2002

The newest source of tension in the increasingly strained Saudi-American relationship is the revelation that nearly two-thirds of the 158 Al Qaeda terrorists being held at Guantanamo are citizens of Saudi Arabia. Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, is demanding that the prisoners be turned over to Saudi officials, "since they fall under the kingdom's regulations."

Exactly which regulations those are Nayef doesn't say. Perhaps they are the ones that have kept Riyadh from extraditing the 13 Saudis indicted for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 US soldiers. In any case, Nayef had no intention of apologizing for the ongoing involvement of Saudi citizens in terrorism. On the contrary, he was indignant that anyone might accuse Saudi Arabia of having unclean hands.

"We have become," he was complaining Tuesday at a meeting of Arab interior ministers, "the accused and the victim all at once . . . before the answer to the following question becomes clear: Who did this? Individuals? A group? A state or states?"

The answer to "Who did this?" may be a mystery to Nayef, but most Americans are clear on the Saudi connection to Sept. 11. They know that Saudi Arabia is the homeland of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the September hijackers, that Saudi sympathizers helped bankroll Al Qaeda's terror network, and that Saudi diplomacy helped legitimize Afghanistan's vicious Taliban dictatorship. Many of them also know that the Islamist extremism and anti-American hatred that fuels bin Laden's terrorism has its roots in Saudi Arabia and is ardently promoted by that country's Wahhabi fundamentalists.

But what many in the United States find especially infuriating is the posture the Saudis have adopted since the massacres. Cynical, unhelpful, disingenuous, and self-righteous, Riyadh has made plain its distaste for the US war against terrorism. It refused to allow US aircraft based in Saudi Arabia to attack Afghanistan. It will not permit any attack on Iraq to be launched from its territory. Insultingly, the Saudis officially deny that American forces are even in their country and do not permit the US flag to be flown at the American air base near Al Kharj.

Saudi Arabia is conventionally described as an important US ally. Increasingly, Americans aren't so sure. In a survey conducted last October by Zogby International, only 24 percent of respondents expressed a favorable view of Saudi Arabia; 58 percent said their opinion was unfavorable. Similarly, only 22 percent characterized Saudi Arabia as a "very good" or "generally good" ally. (By way of comparison, 52 percent of those polled identified Israel as a good ally.)

And that was three months ago. If Zogby were to repeat its poll today, it would undoubtedly find that Americans think even less of Saudi Arabia now.

It isn't only the American-in-the-street who has soured on the Saudis. US Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, commented bluntly on Jan. 15 that it might be time to pull our troops out of the desert kingdom "and find a place where we are much more welcome openly -- a place," he added pointedly, "which has not seen significant resources flowing to support some really extreme, fanatic views." Other members of Congress agree.

In an interview this week with two US newspapers, Crown Prince Abdullah -- Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler -- claimed that "there has been absolutely no change" in relations between his country and the United States. "Our relationship has been very strong for over six decades, and I don't see any reason why there should be a change." Of course Abdullah knows better -- he himself wrote to President Bush last summer that the two countries were "at a crossroads" and that it was "time for the US and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests." If it was true then, it is even truer now.

In the interview, Abdullah proclaimed himself a friend of America, yet expressed no shame or chagrin that so many Saudis were involved in last September's slaughter. He spent much of the session berating the United States for its policy toward the Palestinians, but never once acknowledged the horrific Palestinian terrorism that has murdered so many innocents. He attributed his pro-Palestinian advocacy to his "sense of humanity" and dislike for "oppression" -- then turned around and stoutly defended his kingdom's primitive repression of women. "There is no inherent discrimination against women," he lied, "and no limitation to how far women can go in our society."

Saudi-watchers have long known that Abdullah is no friend of the United States, and nothing in his interview suggested otherwise. What is clear that Saudi and US interests no longer coincide. We are fighting a war against radical Islamist terrorism, while Saudi Arabia nurtures and exports the religious fanaticism on which the terrorists feed. We aim to destroy Al Qaeda, while many Saudis -- including members of the royal family -- are among Al Qaeda's strongest backers.

So Washington has a choice. It can continue its policy of deferring to Riyadh, and wait for the inevitable day when US troops are asked to leave. Or it can adopt the approach it took with Pakistan, and force Saudi Arabia to sharply and immediately change course -- or be regarded by the United States as an enemy. On Sept. 11, Pakistan was the Taliban's closest supporter and a key source of arms and recruits for Al Qaeda. By Sept. 14, its arms severely twisted by Washington on Bush's orders, it was fully enlisted in the US war on terrorism.

Saudi Arabia can be turned around, too. But first Bush has to give the order. Can he do it?

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
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