- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

According to the Prophet Mohammed, "The turban is the barrier between unbelief and the Faith." In Turkish, until recently, the phrase "sapka giymek" to put on the [European] hat was the equivalent of the English phrase "to turn one's coat." In a land where the wrong headgear is considered an act of treason, it is not surprising that for more than 2,000 years those who have tried to make peace in the Middle East have had their hearts broken. We should not expect it to be any different in the year 2001.

If the last months will be remembered for the coming of war and anthrax to America, the next months may well be the time when the Saudi royal succession crises gains critical mass as it intersects a difficult period of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Middle East, every grievance is a connection to a chain of events that inexorably leads to an explosion.

In December 1995, Saudi Prince Sultan sought the endorsement of the Saudi Ulema, the highest religious authority, for his claim to the throne of the ailing King Faud, while his rival and half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, was out of the country. Prince Sultan and his son Bandar, the ambassador to the United States represented the pro-American wing of the House of Saud. Crown Prince Abdullah and his second son Mitab, the leader of the fanatical Bedouin National Guard represented the more religious, decidedly less pro-American wing of the family.

Abdullah won the struggle just short of civil war by a display of Bedouin military prowess. Since then, the regent, Crown Prince Abdullah, has dominated Saudi politics by dangerously courting the militant Wahhabite clerics most of whom are inspired by Osama bin Laden, for whom the House of Saud is the premier enemy. As a result, Abdullah's government has consistently refused to help the United States investigate the various bin Laden terrorist attacks on American interests. Middle East experts believe that, if bin Laden were to rally his Saudi followers to violence, only Mitab's Bedouin National Guard could block a bin Laden victory and that would probably entail a virtual civil war.

It is in the context of this Saudi fear of bin Laden that we must understand the extraordinary outburst last week by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal. The normally smooth diplomat exploded in an interview with the New York Times that he was "angrily frustrated" with President Bush for his failure to commit to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Mr. Bush's failure to be seen in the Middle East as an "honest broker," the foreign minister said, "makes a sane man go mad." While Secretary of State Colin Powell later met with the Saudi foreign minister and sweet words were uttered, there is no mistaking the significance of such undiplomatic words by the world's leading Saudi diplomat.

What triggered the outburst was the unfolding of last week's informal round of negotiating by Britain, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians. First, British Prime Minister Tony Blair mooted an informal Anglo-American peace proposal in a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That was followed quickly by an informal rejection in total of the proposal on a web site run by Mr. Arafat's close allies Sahar Habash and Tawfik Abu Garbiya.

At a joint press conference with Mr. Blair in Washington the next day, Mr. Bush announced that a Middle East peace is not a condition for winning the war on terrorism. (The Saudis and other moderate Arab states have been conditioning their support for our war on an early peace deal forced on Israel by the United States and Europe.)

This was followed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's tough statement that Mr. Bush would not meet with Mr. Arafat at the United Nations because Mr. Arafat has not done all he can to root out terrorism. "You cannot help us with al Qaeda and hug [the terrorist organizations] Hezbollah and Hamas," Miss Rice said. That statement was seen by many Arabs as virtually declaring Mr. Arafat an unfit person with whom to negotiate. It was following that statement that Saudi Arabia's Mr. Faisal let loose with his anguished words to the New York Times.

Mr. Arafat had, in fact, arrested 60 terrorists, and, as a result, had taken terrible attacks from his own Palestinian Authority supporters. But he was unable or unwilling to make a clean break with his allied terrorist organizations. And, had Mr. Bush accepted that half-loaf, the precarious Sharon government in Israel might well have fallen to its conservative critics led by Bibbi Netanyahu. This week, Reuters reported that Saad-al Fagih, the London-based Saudi leader of the anti-government faction, predicted a bin Laden network attack on the Saudi government.

And so, as we approach the Muslim month of Ramadan and the continued necessary U.S. bombing, the moribund Palestinian-Israeli peace process exposes the House of Saud to possible bin Laden-caused street violence. The Saudis remember only too well the Iranian-inspired bloody mob violence at the Grand Mosque in 1979. After the diplomatic failures of the last fortnight, the Saudi regime is bracing itself for a possibly more furious gathering storm. As we continue to import their vital oil to keep our economy running, we might wish to heed that storm warning.


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