The coming Saudi eruption
As al-Qaida prepares its next move, the House of Saud is desperate to get US troops to leave the Arabian peninsula
Tuesday January 29, 2002
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia - the pivot of American power in the Middle East - are at breaking point.
Although the recent call for the US to pull its troops out of the country was attributed to an "anonymous Saudi official" in the Washington Post, no one can doubt the seriousness of the breach between the two allies, nor the scale of the potential fallout from a rupture.
The growing conflict is a manifestation of the very artificial nature of those relations. After all, what would make an open secular democracy, like the US, maintain a strategically close and intimate relation with a secretive and zealous absolute feudal monarchy like Saudi Arabia? In the beginning, it was simple: oil was the whole story. There were no reasons for any conflict or embarrassment. Later, as US involvement grew in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was declared an area of vital interest. But even then, the US was wise enough to understand the sensitivities and avoid an open physical presence in Saudi Arabia. But after the 1990 Gulf crisis, the US crossed the psychological barrier by bringing in their forces. They failed to remember the sensitivities. Worse, the Saudi government was never brave enough to remind them.
Contrary to the usual assumption that American troops are protecting the royal family, the royal family is in fact protecting these troops. Politically, American troops are still officially in the country at the request of its rulers. From a religious point of view, the official clergy's Gulf war ruling that they are guests has never been reversed. In terms of security, Saudi security forces are watching, rounding up and trying to eradicate groups which might target the Americans.
But what was effective in the early 90s is no longer so. The regime's legitimacy has been drastically undermined, not least by the presence of these troops, while the religious establishment is no longer credible because of its support for the regime. Meanwhile, the loyalty of the security forces is now seriously in doubt. The regime knows that Osama bin Laden is very popular in the country (a classified US report of a Saudi intelligence survey of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 in October found that 95% supported Bin Laden's cause). Any pressure on the security forces to "do their job" would backfire.
The Saud family was well aware that the presence of American troops was a huge political liability even before the September events. The consensus then was to avoid trouble with the Americans.
But since September, the issue has become an even more powerful weapon in the hands of Bin Laden supporters. The regime has found itself in an increasingly difficult situation. It wanted to get rid of this liability but knew that, for the Americans, any talk of withdrawing the troops would be regarded as a reward to Bin Laden and a victory for terrorism.
The issue became even more sensitive with the American attack on Afghanistan.
Although the regime did its best to stay in the American orbit, the public mood in Saudi Arabia was massively supportive of Bin Laden and hostile to the US.
Relations were complicated by the media campaign in the US against the Saudi royal family. But with the apparent success of the American mission, the timing seemed right to float the call for a troop withdrawal via an anonymous source in an American newspaper.
Let it be understood that the House of Saud does not base its decisions on principles, national pride, sovereignty or religion. They calculate things according to a balance, which keeps them in power. They are desperate now to appear before their people as rejecting the American military presence. But it is unlikely that the Saud family rulers will ever be brave enough to go public with the request.
It's more likely that they will agree with the Americans how to get the forces out without giving Bin Laden any credit. Indeed, a senior congressman has already said that US forces may have to be moved out because of the socially harsh conditions they face.
It also needs to be remembered that the American presence is not only of uniformed troops. Probably the paramilitary, civilian backup, and the command and control and logistical set-up are more important to the US.
The Americans are already convinced that the troops can be transferred elsewhere with minimal or no loss in military advantage, but they cannot afford to abandon these other assets unless they are compelled to. Finally, it is unlikely that any withdrawal will take place while plans to attack Iraq are still live. American troops in the kingdom would be vital to such an operation.
All such expectations depend on the assumption that al-Qaida has been paralysed or destroyed. But if what is being said by circles close to al-Qaida about a major impending attack on the US or Saudi Arabia is true, then the situation is likely to change completely, with unpredictable consequences. It all depends on the nature, timing and scale of such attacks.
· Saad al-Fagih is a leading exiled Saudi dissident and director of the Movement
for Islamic Reform in Arabia.
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002