WASHINGTON: The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks saw Saudi-American relations become the subject of scrutiny and debate, a focus epitomized by the series of conferences held recently in Washington on the issue.
Over the course of the past two weeks, three nongovernmental institutions the Middle East Policy Council, Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) held well-attended conferences on the relationship between the two countries, that was first sealed in a historic meeting between the founder of the Saudi kingdom, King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard a US warship in the Suez Canal in 1945.
Several university professors from the King Saud University have been visiting American universities California State, Portland State and Georgetown University as well as Hussein Shobokshi, a leading Saudi businessman and economic columnist, explaining their country's concerns about deteriorating Saudi-US ties since Sept. 11.
None of the panelists from either side have advocated a break in the heretofore strong ties, marred by the action of 19 terrorists from the Al-Qaeda network, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. In fact, one panelist insisted that the relationship between the two governments was better than portrayed in the media.
"There has been enough pointless anger and antagonism between the US and Saudi Arabia," states the opening paragraph of the CSIS program, released last Friday at a panel discussion, and authored by Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in strategy at CSIS. "There has been enough talk about ‘Fourth World Wars,' ‘Zionist conspiracies' in the US, and fatal flaws in Western and Arab cultures," he wrote. "It is time for both the US and Saudi Arabia to restructure their relationship in a far more positive way."
Professor Saleh al-Mani, who teaches political science at the King Saud University, reminded a Washington audience at Georgetown University last Thursday that terrorism had hit Saudi Arabia nearly 20 years ago in the unprecedented takeover by Iranian pilgrims of the Grand Mosque of Makkah, the preferred Saudi spelling for Mecca. "But that incident did not have any foreign ramifications as the dreadful events of Sept. 11."
Although, he said, Saudis "could not fathom that a few of their youth could be brainwashed and enlisted" by Al-Qaeda, there were however, "certain and real grievances emanating from the failure of the world community to find a just solution to the Palestinian question, and other regional ills did indeed help in creating negative attitudes (in the Arab world) toward the (US) administration's policies in the region."
He lamented that Islam, its culture and society, and the Arab states were targeted by "religious fundamentalists" so-called "Christian Zionists as well as the Israeli lobby."
"The war against Iraq and the current occupation of Palestinian lands should be viewed as an aberration to the natural development of our region, and definitely a waste of human life and resources," said Mani. "People in our part of the world who exported civilization to the rest of humanity do not need an export of war to its shores. Peace and a just international order is more valuable than projection of military power."
Most Saudi speakers criticized the recently introduced US travel restrictions, especially facing Saudi students who wish to come here in pursuit of higher education. "A whole generation of Saudi professionals and scholars have received their higher education in the United States," Mani pointed out. "We hope and pray that the current isolationist attitudes in this country would be transitory, and the old flow of people, goods and services would be restored to its previous levels." The economic ties between the two countries is significant, it was stressed throughout. Saudi Arabia is the second largest trading partner with the United States in the Middle East, valued at some $20 billion a year, and Saudis are said to have invested the major part of their $400-billion portfolios abroad in US securities and government bonds. Moreover, there are some 337 joint Saudi- American ventures with a paid-up capital of $22 billion.
Among the reasons offered for reforging US and Saudi relations, according to the CSIS report, were that "the US and the world need Saudi and Gulf oil, and Saudi Arabia and its neighbors need to export it."
The US Department of Energy estimates, the report continued, that the global economy requires Gulf oil-production capacity to increase form 22.4 million barrels per day (mbd) to 45.2 mbd in 2025. "Saudi production alone must increase from 10.2 mbd in 2001 to 23mbd in 2025," the report continued, "an increase of 133 percent."
The CSIS report stressed that these exports require both "security and a level of investment that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can no longer sustain without massive foreign direct investment in both Saudi Arabia's petroleum sector and the rest of its economy."
Another significant point in the CSIS report underlined the "continuing need" for US and Saudi security cooperation. It explained that removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein helped reduce the security risks in the Gulf, "but it has scarcely eliminated them Iraq is not going to be stable for years if not decades."
The report found it "destructive in character" the cycle of "Saudi bashing" by the Congress and the US media, and its mirror image in the form of US bashing by Saudi opinion leaders and media. It also advised that if there were ever to be an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, both the United States and Saudi Arabia needed to work together "as much as possible to push the peace process forward and reduce support for violent extremism on both sides."
In a conference titled "Saudi Arabia: Enemy or Friend?" organized by The Middle East Policy Council, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas. W. Freeman Jr., said in his opening remarks that the US and Saudi governments were interested in promoting cooperation, "but the two peoples have a different view, and both governments find themselves defending this relationship against widespread popular opposition."
On the other hand, he reported after a trip to Saudi Arabia last December that "popular support in the struggle against terror is high, since Saudis observing the May and November bombings of compounds have been able to see that the objective of the terrorists is not just to kill Americans and other Westerners, but to destroy the liberal and cosmopolitan element in Saudi Arabia itself." In other words, he continued, middle class Saudis "are the target as much as anyone in this room."
Freeman went on to predict that negotiations for Saudi accession into the World Trade Organization, "which have been in the doldrums, are now in the final sprint." Without citing any sources, he said that "some predict that as early as February the United States and Saudi Arabia may be able to conclude those discussions with a multilateral session in May, bringing Saudi Arabia finally into conformity with global norms in the area of trade and investment."
On the other hand, he cited some "negative things" he saw during the visit like "roadblocks, police checkpoints, jersey barriers and barricades, given the high degree of concern justifiably high degree of concern about domestic terrorism." He said all these developments are "invisible to Americans, and the whole relationship is colored by mutual antagonism and antipathy at the popular level that resembles nothing so much as the rage and frustration and anger and bitterness of a divorced spouse or an abandoned lover or a friend who has been betrayed."
But "neither government seems to have a strategy for changing minds," Freeman added, "though it's clear that Saudis are trying harder to change American minds than Americans are to change Saudi minds."
Shobokshi, who also attended the Middle East Policy Council conference, said he was "very heartbroken" that there was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the State of the Union address by Bush. "We are not Saudis, I think, and probably Arabs we don't think the man of peace (as Bush had described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) will sign a treaty anytime soon … (This) issue needs to be settled before a complete harmony in the relationship between Arabs and Americans will take place."