- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

U.S. and Saudi officials are working overtime to patch up a very public breach following a summer of strains over Iraq, Israel and the war on terrorism.
But the exercise in diplomatic damage control including a chummy family visit yesterday by the Saudi ambassador to the Texas ranch of President Bush and Mr. Bush's declaration Monday of an enduring friendship with the oil-rich desert kingdom has not been able to stifle skeptical voices on both sides.
Saudi Arabia's leading newspaper recently called for a "national dialogue" on the future of U.S.-Saudi ties, an alliance that dates back seven decades.
The dialogue is needed, the Al Riyadh newspaper said, "because we are getting repeated signals from Washington that they no longer see our relations in the same way."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that "while we don't necessarily agree on every issue, overall we have a very solid relationship with Saudi Arabia."
"We are cooperating and working with the Saudi government in the fight against terrorism in all its aspects, especially in areas involving finance, legal matters and investigations," Mr. Boucher said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal observed, "Unfortunately, there are certain departments who are trying to raise doubts about the strong historical ties between our two countries. I am confident they will not succeed."
To U.S. skeptics, Saudi Arabia is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that produced an estimated 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers and about one-third of the prisoners from the Afghanistan war now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
They say Riyadh blocked the use of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia for the Afghan campaign and earlier this month vetoed any use of the bases for a prospective war against Iraq.
"The current Saudi regime," wrote William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and an influential voice among conservative foreign-policy analysts, "is part of the problem, not part of the solution."
Saudi Arabia has also taken the lead in rallying other Arab governments to oppose a military strike against Baghdad, worried that an attack could plunge the entire region into chaos and even undermine their own rule at home.
Some U.S. analysts believe at least senior Saudi officials secretly retain ties to the al Qaeda network of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden.
For their part, Saudi diplomats complain their contributions to the war on terrorism, in the face of strong domestic opposition, have been overlooked.
They say the Bush administration's public tilt toward Israel in the Middle East peace process has greatly complicated the Saudis' own diplomatic efforts.
The Saudi government also condemned a lawsuit filed last week by some 700 relatives of the victims of the September 11 attacks, seeking more than $1 trillion in damages from the Saudi government and members of the Saudi royal family for what the suit said was financial support of al Qaeda.
The rising degree of mutual suspicion crystallized in the release of a private briefing to a Pentagon civilian advisory board that characterized the Saudi regime as the "kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Mr. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell rushed to disavow the remarks when details of the briefing were leaked earlier this month, but Saudi officials said they worried that the "kernel of evil" idea was supported by at least some in the Pentagon and among the president's hawkish private advisers.
The Saudi government's decision to bar the use of U.S. bases there for an Iraq campaign has proved popular at home. The authoritarian regime also has faced unusually public protests and condemnations from leading Muslim clerics over U.S. policy in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Boucher stressed that Washington is aggressively pursuing peace in the Middle East. However, analysts say the U.S. focus on Iraq has almost completely obscured a Saudi-backed Mideast peace plan floated earlier this year by Crown Prince Abdullah.
Saudi officials have argued repeatedly that the United States must be engaged in the Palestinian question, even as it pursues its "regime change" policy in Iraq, if it is to retain support among moderate Arab regimes.
The strained relations have even spilled over into the economic sphere, with reports that Saudi investors are planning to withdraw hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. investments to protest recent moves by Washington.
Saudi energy officials also worry America's improving ties with Russia and a post-Saddam regime in Iraq friendly to Washington could undermine Riyadh's position as the dominant supplier in the world's energy markets.
Private analysts acknowledge the new tensions in U.S.-Saudi ties but say underlying political realities make a complete break unlikely.
According to the London-based research group Economist Intelligence Unit, "Mutual interests between the two countries chiefly security and oil will prevent a serious breach in relations in the medium term."

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