The Saudis Face A Huge Problem As The Arabs Put New Terms On The Grand Alliance.
*** Hardliners In Israel & The Palestinian Territories Will Make It Hard For Bush To Keep His Anti-Terror Coalition In One Piece
NICOSIA - A highly placed APS source explains that a subtle shift in Riyadh's stand on the proposed US-led alliance against global terrorism reflects a quick end to differences within the Saudi royal family. The differences have ended with a decisive view by Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdel Aziz that no foreign troops will be allowed to use Saudi base facilities to attack any Arab or Muslim country.
This view was made public on Sept. 30 by Prince Sultan Ibn Abdel Aziz, Saudi Arabia's Second Deputy Premier and Defence Minister, who is a full brother of King Fahd and the strongman of the so-called "Sudairi Seven". Prince Sultan, who is a half brother of Prince Abdullah, was quoted by 'Al Okaz' newspaper as saying: "We do not accept the presence in our country of a single soldier at war with Muslims or Arabs". According to the source, this statement was aimed at putting an end to speculation about a rift between the Sudairi wing of the royal family, which is considered progressive, and the conservative wing led by Prince Abdullah and backed by the ulema.
The sources say that there is concern among Arab leaders that, if the US attacks Afghanistan and civilians die in the process, Osama Bin Ladin would have succeeded in his goal of polarising Muslim and Christians worldwide. There is also considerable unease about the question of evidence, with regional leaders saying no attack should be carried out until the evidence of Bin Ladin's guilt is made available to the coalition partners. Finally, there is also a feeling in the Arab World that any support for the US in its action against the Taliban must be reciprocated by the US through pressure on Israel in the future. There have already been indications of this, with the US for the first time indicating that it envisages the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel as part of a final settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yet the sources claim there are clear signals that the coalition against the Taliban will be far less cohesive than the one formed against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990-91. They say that, motivated partly by anger against the Bush administration's posture towards the peace process between January and Sept. 11 this year, Arab states involved are setting some tough conditions in return for co-operation. It has been reported that Riyadh has refused Washington the use of the advanced Prince Sultan Air Base near the capital, although both Saudi Arabia and the US seem keen not to turn this into a major issue. Prince Sultan Air Base is linked to the Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE and Seeb in Oman, and forms an important command and control triangle for US forces in the area. The delicately balanced position of Riyadh is based on a number of factors, including: (a) most of the hijackers involved in the WTC/Pentagon attacks were of Saudi origin, (b) there is a significant amount of sympathy for Bin Ladin in the kingdom in view of the current state of the Arab-Israeli peace process, (c) there are concerns that US President George Bush's "war against terrorism" may rapidly evolve to cover the bombing of Arab states deemed to sponsor terror, and (d) there is a possibility that Washington may target Bin Ladin and the Taliban and leave regional players to deal with the aftermath which could involve spillover of militancy into the Gulf.
Washington has acknowledged that key allies in the Middle East are having doubts about the impending "Operation Enduring Freedom". Unlike the Gulf crisis, when the interests of key Arab Gulf states were directly affected, this time the problem is primarily an American one. While Washington's allies in the region do not want to appear ungrateful by not supporting the US-led attack against the Taliban, there are deeper concerns this time around about the impact on public opinion. Much of it derives from the perceived direct linkage, at least in the Arab World, between what is happening between the Israelis and Palestinians on the one hand and the targeting of Bin Ladin on the other.
To ease some of these concerns, Washington has been disclosing the evidence that it says proves Osama is linked to the WTC/Pentagon attacks to its partners. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld started a tour of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan on Oct. 3 - all countries crucial in military and political terms to the upcoming Operation Enduring Freedom; Washington even changed the name of the operation from "Infinite Justice" to Enduring Freedom in order to accommodate the Islamic belief that only God can dispense infinite justice.
In Saudi Arabia, Rumsfeld met with King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan. Later, at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld, Prince Sultan played down the possibility of any US military strikes on Arab countries in retaliation for the WTC/Pentagon attacks, noting: "We are sure that the United States will not undertake such an action". Intriguingly, Prince Sultan added that the Saudi leaders "do not feel there are any strikes that are going to be taken against the Taliban" - indicating that the kingdom wished to see the Taliban regime remain in place in some form after the expected US assault. For his part, Rumsfeld said he told the Saudis that President Bush was sensitive to Muslim feelings about the US assault and they had discussed ways of preventing "secondary effects" - hinting at the possibility of a popular backlash in the kingdom.
Riyadh is especially sensitive to the potential for domestic instability. There is keen awareness that, in view of the global economic downturn, difficult times are ahead for the Saudi economy. This, in turn, is likely to have an impact on the living standards of Saudi citizens - with greater unemployment likely to be one side effect. If the US action against the Taliban turns out to be a sustained operation, there could easily be popular opposition against co-operation with Washington, given the sectarian Wahhabi linkages between the Taliban regime and the kingdom.
There have been reports of strains within the royal family itself. Some observers have judged the Saudi decision to not allow the US to launch operations from the kingdom as an indication that the conservative wing led by Prince Abdullah and backed by the Wahhabi ulema has prevailed. The observers say that the Sudairi Seven were prepared to let the US launch attacks against the Taliban from Saudi bases, but Prince Abdullah was opposed to it. This was partly due to geo-political considerations as well as concerns about possible terrorist attacks against the royal family. It has been reported that, following a palace conclave led by Prince Abdullah, it was decided to airlift King Fahd and his entourage to Geneva on Sept. 18-19 in view of such concerns. This was also due to worry that the ailing monarch may have been stranded without adequate medical attention if the domestic situation destabilised suddenly. It is not clear if the airlift happened, or whether the move was cancelled when it became clear that the US would not act in haste. If the King was airlifted to Geneva, however, he was back by Oct. 3 in time to meet Rumsfeld in Riyadh.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat News Service|
|Date:||Oct 8, 2001|
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