- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Recent media reports have said Saudi Arabia's rulers want to end Washington's military presence in the country. Statements by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have been intended to settle the issue, but a close reading of what he actually said raises more questions than answers.

The two countries have a long history, and Riyadh has proven valuable to U.S. interests in the region, but strategic divisions following September 11 have made a split increasingly likely.

On one side, the United States was creating a coalition to fight al Qaeda. Washington made cooperation in its fight a litmus test of friendship with the United States. On the other side in Saudi Arabia a bulwark of conservative Islam the royal family was deeply divided over cooperation with the United States. The pressure on the relationship was substantial, and this month it broke into the open.

It began when Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said the United States should begin thinking of shifting its forces out of Saudi Arabia to countries in the region that might be more hospitable. This was followed by a story Jan. 18 in The Washington Post that cited a "senior Saudi official" as saying the United States had "overstayed its welcome" in his country.

Mr. Powell, while on a visit to Pakistan, India and Nepal, suddenly found himself with what appeared to be a crisis in the Persian Gulf. On the surface, Mr. Powell seemed to dismiss the Post story out of hand on Jan. 19. However, a careful reading of his statement shows something quite different. Mr. Powell made three statements:

1. "There have been no discussions of such an issue."

2. "There is nothing in that story that warrants my attention at the moment."

3. "We are constantly reviewing our footprint in that part of the world to see if we have the right distribution of our presence over the various countries that are there. We want to be good guests in all the countries that host our military forces, so I know [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld keeps this under constant review."

By the following day, in an interview on the Fox network, Mr. Powell shifted from the first of his three statements. Instead, he said: "It has not reached any level of discussion that brought it to the top levels of the State Department. But it wouldn't be unusual for our people to be discussing with the Saudis exactly how we are distributed through Saudi Arabia … ."

Mr. Powell had every opportunity to make a flat, unequivocal statement. He could have put this issue to rest. He chose not to. Bottom line: There is a problem, and it is a profound one.

[The de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, sought to paper over the apparent split in interviews published yesterday by the New York Times and Washington Post. He spoke to reporters from both newspapers on Monday in Riyadh, his capital.

[Saudi Arabia remains close to the United States, but the kingdom is forced to remain silent about its ties because of Washington's support of Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians. In summarizing the articles, the Associated Press said the crown prince, a half-brother of ailing King Fahd, said he was critical of the Washington's Mideast policy out of concern for U.S. "credibility."

["America has a duty to follow its conscience to reject repression," Prince Abdullah was quoted as saying. "As a member of my community, it is very difficult for me to accept what is happening in the (Palestinian) territories because it is inhumane and violates basic principles and tenets," he said.]

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has been the foundation of both Washington's strategy in the Persian Gulf and the Saudi grand strategy since the 1950s.

When Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew Egypt's monarchy and installed a secular, socialist, militarist pan-Arabism in its place, he challenged the interests of both Washington and Riyadh. Nasser's vision was a single, united, modernizing state encompassing the entire Arab world a United Arab Republic.

A wave of Nasserism swept the region, creating similar regimes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Nasser saw the Saudi regime as both the center of gravity of religious conservatism in the Middle East and as the potential financial engine for modernizing the Arabs. Were Riyadh's wealth to come under the control of a pro-Egyptian, Soviet-aligned regime, the global balance of power could have shifted.

Thus Saudi and U.S. interests aligned. Washington constructed a Middle Eastern strategy built mainly around Israel, the Shah's Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In retrospect, the Arab oil embargo and the dramatic increase in oil prices following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war were not entirely detrimental to the United States. Whatever the economic impact, the rise in oil prices increased Saudi Arabia's power in the Arab world and helped turn the tide on Arab secular radicalism.

As this secular radicalism declined, a new force emerged to bind the United States and the Saudis closer together. The Iranian revolution, which combined republicanism with Islamic fundamentalism in a Shi'ite form, frightened the Saudis as much as the secular radicals had. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia were obsessed with containing this threat.

One of the mechanisms for containing Iran was Iraq. Their war in the 1980s was not unwelcome by either Washington or Riyadh, as it kept Tehran occupied.

But the outcome of the war was less agreeable, since it deeply weakened Iran and left Iraq as the dominant native power in the Persian Gulf, a position it quickly exploited in its invasion of Kuwait.

Here, U.S. and Saudi interests again coincided. The United States did not want Iraq to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and control a vast share of the world's oil production. Saudi Arabia itself understood that it would be Baghdad's next victim. The Saudis therefore permitted a massive deployment of U.S. forces into the country. But now Saudi-U.S. interests are no longer in alignment.

George Friedman is the founder and chairman of Strator in Austin, Texas, a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers.

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