- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The marriage of convenience was consummated in one war and grew closer in another. Now in the shadowy struggle against terrorism, America and Saudi Arabia are growing apart.

"I'm not sure their whole heart is with us," a U.S. congressman said ruefully. "We're not against the Americans," insists a senior Saudi prince. But Islam, he says, comes first.

Islam and Israel, sovereignty and national pride, the demands of an anti-terror war all have combined to shake the U.S.-Saudi partnership and stir talk of a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conservative Muslim kingdom.

The irritants run beyond policy to matters of personality and style. The two nations, superpower and petro-power, "bridge an incredible gap," said author Said K. Aburish.

Mr. Aburish, an Arab-American chronicler of the Saudi monarchy, believes a partial separation a U.S. military pullout would benefit both partners. But others think it won't happen.

The connection began in 1945, in World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdel Aziz aboard a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal. Within three years, American oil companies, with the royal House of Saud, held a monopoly over the kingdom's newfound oil reserves.

Iraq's 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait tied the knot tighter. Washington poured 500,000 troops into the Arabian Peninsula and drove out the Iraqis. Thousands of U.S. troops stayed behind, and the U.S.-Saudi alliance became the axis of global geopolitics.

On September 11, the terrorist thunder from New York and Washington rocked the foundations of the half-century-old partnership.

American investigators said 15 of 19 suicide skyjackers were Saudis. The deaths of more than 3,000 people were tied to the al Qaeda network of the Saudi-born exile Osama bin Laden.

Seeing Saudi Arabia as a threat was, for Americans, "the biggest of shocks," Saudi businessman and author Hani A.Z. Yamani said in an interview. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, bridled at what Saudis saw as Israeli-inspired criticism in the U.S. media.

Reports next surfaced that influential players in both capitals were discussing a withdrawal from Saudi Arabia by the U.S. military, which has bases elsewhere in the Gulf region. Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said American forces could find a place "where we are much more welcome." Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said the "heart" had gone out of the relationship.

"The American presence is very unpopular in Saudi Arabia," Mr. Aburish noted. He believes a U.S. pullout would boost popular support for Saudi royals and remove a cause for anti-Americanism in the region.

Political scientist Wahid Hashim of Saudi Arabia's Abdul Aziz University also points out that external threats to the Saudis are fading. The severely weakened Iraqis "are not barking as much as they did," and a detente is growing between Saudi Arabia and old rival Iran.

But Messrs. Hashim and Yamani don't believe a U.S. withdrawal is imminent.

Americans in uniform wouldn't miss the sandy wastes. Security concerns keep American troops largely confined. Women who must venture off base are encouraged to shroud themselves in an abaya. U.S. military chapels have to be disguised as "morale centers," since all religions but Islam are outlawed.

The alliance is awkward in other ways. In a scathing report last month on the Saudi "wasteland," Human Rights Watch urged Washington to stop ignoring rights violations in the kingdom "as the price of selling arms and buying oil."

The United States is Saudi Arabia's biggest trading partner, and the Saudis are the biggest buyers of U.S.-made weaponry $39 billion worth in the 1990s. They have also been major U.S. creditors, buying billions in Treasury bonds, and enthusiastic investors in U.S. industry.


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