Ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia have come under increasing strain since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Suspicions about Saudi contributions to Islamic fundamentalist organizations and the kingdom’s connections to international terrorism have raised questions about the durability of relations between Washington and Riyadh. Despite the recent friction, the mutual interests that have bound the two countries — oil and stability in the Persian Gulf — remain. Nevertheless, the Saudi government apparently faces a need to overcome its reluctance to crack down against extremists whose ultimate target is believed to be not the U.S., but the Saudi regime itself.
There has been concern about the Saudi connection to terrorism since it was discovered that 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks were of Saudi origin. In addition, there have been charges that Saudi support for Islamic charities around the world — which is substantial — has been used to finance terrorism. There are also reports that donations for Palestinians have also financed terrorism against Israel. While many of those donors have been unaware of the ultimate use of their money, the CIA has reportedly drawn up a list of up to a dozen wealthy Saudis who are thought to be funneling millions of dollars to Osama bin Laden.
The most recent charge is that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. gave charitable donations that ended up in the pockets of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Saudi officials have confirmed that while in California the men received money from two Saudi students, who had in turn received funds from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Princess al-Faisal sent the monthly checks to a Saudi woman living in the U.S. to help pay for medical treatment. Riyadh officials defended the donation, saying it is customary to assist Saudis in need, but denied that there was a deliberate attempt to finance terrorism.
Officially, the U.S. denies that the relationship is in trouble. Earlier this year, a think tank proposed that Washington take a hard line against Riyadh for its failure to crack down against militants and the financiers. The White House quickly distanced itself from such thinking. Saudi Arabia is said to be a “good partner” and U.S. government spokesmen applaud its cooperation in shutting down sources of terrorist financing. The two governments are working together to prevent charitable donations from being misused by terrorist organizations. Reportedly, however, U.S. frustrations are rising and Washington has given Riyadh 90 days to crack down on the money trail, or the U.S. will take action on its own.
The Saudis’ vast supplies of oil are one reason for Washington’s continuing faith in Riyadh; the U.S. imports about 10 percent of its oil from the kingdom. Another is America’s need for allies in the region as it contemplates the possibility of a confrontation with Iraq. But neither is absolute. The U.S. has been developing other bases in the region for possible use if there is war, and cultivating other oil suppliers as well.
Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to admit its ties to terrorist organizations is understandable. Emotions have been running high since 9/11, and no government can control every one of its citizens. Some links are inevitable. Yet, Saudi Arabia has played a major role in the spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the world. In a tacit agreement with religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government and prominent individuals have financed religious schools, known as “madrassas,” outside the country that teach radical ideas. To some extent, the support for these programs is designed to buy peace at home: Saudi money buys the religious leaders’ support for the government in Riyadh. Not all supporters are so pragmatic: Other individuals support the program because they genuinely believe in the radical ideas fostered in the madrassas.
While the exchange seems expedient, it is in fact a Faustian bargain. The Islamic extremists are targeting the U.S., but that is only because they see U.S. might as the obstacle to their real objective — seizing power in Saudi Arabia and implementing their version of an Islamic government. Once the U.S. is weakened, the radicals will focus their energies on the real enemy: moderate Arab governments. Osama bin Laden’s original declaration of war against the West targeted the U.S. only because it supported “the infidels” in Riyadh.
The Saudi government must understand that there can be no accommodation with terrorists. A failure to recognize that it, too, is a potential victim of the Islamic extremists could undermine the long-term viability of its relationship with the U.S. That would only encourage the radicals and bring them closer to their goal.
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