- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

For the last decade, some of the harshest criticism of the Saudi government has come from the new generation of liberal Islamic clerics within the kingdom. These individuals, while religiously conservative, advocate liberal political and economic reforms. Most have spent years in jail or under house arrest for their views. However, after September 11, as American public opinion has shifted against the Saudis, such domestic criticism has largely disappeared. Even the most outspoken critics of the Saudi royal family have united behind their government as Saudis come to see themselves in America's crosshairs.
This souring of relations has led Saudis to believe the worst about the United States. For instance, a recent story holds that the Pentagon had commissioned a plan to partition Saudi Arabia. While there is no evidence that such a study exists, the kingdom is now rife with the rumor. Last year, this would have been dismissed as paranoid gossip; today it is widely believed.
In fact, the "study" has become a rallying-point for many in the kingdom, even long time critics of the monarchy. Last week, the Arab satellite station al Jazeera dedicated its most popular talk show to a discussion of the supposed American study. The main guest, Mohsen Al Awaji, a prominent liberal Islamic scholar jailed for his criticisms of the royal family, denounced the plan on the show. Another leading dissident of the Saudi administration, Sheikh Safar Al Hawali, called in to angrily declare that the "U.S. will never be in a position to dictate how we manage our domestic affairs." Even the most senior Saudi Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Hassan Al Saffar (who would ostensibly benefit from the plan if the mainly Shi'ite oil-rich eastern province were detached from majority Sunni Saudi Arabia), condemned the idea vociferously. From his self-imposed exile in Bahrain Sheikh Al Saffar stated "no sane upright Muslim should ever listen to anything the United States has to say about Islam and Islamic countries." And recently, prominent members of the royal family who have publicly most distanced themselves from the United States such as Minister of Defense Prince Sultan and Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef have seen their popularity skyrocket.
Of course, it is natural for domestic opponents to unite in the face of an external enemy. But officially, there is no "enemy." The Bush administration remains publicly committed to the so-called "special" Saudi-American partnership, and nearly all senior U.S. policy-makers realize the importance of the Saudi royal family to U.S. vital interests.
But Saudis see evidence for a growing animosity toward them across many levels of American society. A string of editorials and analyzes in major U.S. media outfits have vehemently criticized the kingdom for its perceived role in the September attacks. And pundits such as Bill Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, have publicly advocated the removal of the Saudi monarchy. Another influential Saudi dissident, Sheikh Ayid Al Qarni, has appeared on numerous Arab satellite networks, arguing that such remarks are part of "an orchestrated U.S. media campaign against the kingdom."
American determination to remove Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein with or without the support of the kingdom or the Arab world has strengthened the domestic perception that Americans hold the Saudis and Arabs in disdain.
After September 11, certain shortcomings in Saudi society and major lapses in its government policies have become apparent. But more than 50 years of cooperation with the United States should provide impetus to work with, not alienate, this vital U.S. ally. As the world's largest exporter of petroleum, Saudi Arabia has played a stabilizing role in global energy markets for decades, guaranteeing Americans reasonable oil prices. And while Saudi foreign policy will always be informed by the kingdom's responsibilities as guardian of Islam's holiest sites, the Saudi royal family has more often been a force for cooperation, not conflict, with the non-Muslim world. This stance has been extremely valuable to America in economic, political and military terms.
But, if the Bush administration moves away from a policy of mutual respect, upon which this partnership was founded, the Saudi government will find it more difficult to work with America on the shared goals of regional peace, economic development, and oil price stability. America and Saudi Arabia are at the heart of two great, but very different, civilizations. That major disagreements should occur is natural, but through 10 American administrations and five Saudi kingships these differences were handled peacefully. If those who want an enemy in Saudi Arabia gain the upper hand, they will, unfortunately, find one; and the world will become a much more dangerous place.

Nawaf Obaid is a Saudi oil and security analyst.

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