Media

A king’s foreign policy challenges

  John R Bradley, Senior Writer

November 8, 2005

Abdullah must deal with Iraq while mending ties with US, Britain

When Iraq’s interior minister referred last month to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister as ‘some Bedouin riding a camel’, it was just the beginning of a diatribe against the House of Saud.

‘There are regimes that are dictatorships – they have one god, he is the king, he is god of heaven and earth, and he rules as he likes. A whole country is named after a family,’ Mr Bayan Jabr told reporters in Amman, Jordan.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari later said that since Mr Jabr had no jurisdiction over foreign affairs, his comments did not represent the country’s official position.

Still, those comments contributed to a deepening rift between the Saudi and Iraqi governments that represents Saudi King Abdullah’s main foreign policy crisis since he came to power in August.

Deepening sectarian tensions in Iraq are fuelling Saudi fears of the impact these could have on its own population. For the Al-Saud, the Iraq war has been a mixed bag, with positive and negative consequences.

The war removed a major enemy in the person of Saddam Hussein, but created in turn two new problems.

‘Saudi Arabia now has no other Arab country to back it against its main Gulf rival, Iran, which will have nuclear weapons very soon, if it doesn’t have them already,’ said Professor Joshua Teitelbaum of Tel Aviv University, who is the author of Holier Than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition.

The second problem: With the Shi’ites coming into their own in Iraq, the Saudis must be worried about the empowering effect this will have on their own oppressed Shi’ites, who make up a majority of the population in the oil-rich Eastern province.

‘Giving more rights to this population will anger Sunni radicals, who view Shi’ites as apostates,’ said Prof. Teitelbaum.

Iraqi Interior Minister Jabr, who belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi’ite party, also declared during his recent tirade that Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia ‘are treated as third-class citizens’.

Ties with Britain

While Iraq, and Iran’s growing influence in that country, represents the main regional challenge to Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability, King Abdullah also has to contend with mending ties with the kingdom’s key Western partners, especially the US and Britain.

Relations were strained after it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals. But that has been set aside as both the United States and the United Kingdom scramble to tap into the kingdom’s huge oil revenues by negotiating massive news arms sales. And Saudi fears concerning Iran and Iraq make it an eager purchaser.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defence Secretary John Reid have been holding secret talks with Saudi Arabia in pursuit of a huge arms deal worth up to 40 billion pounds (S$119 billion), according to a recent report in The Guardian. Mr Blair went to Riyadh on July 2, en route to Singapore where London was bidding for the 2012 Olympics.

Three weeks later, Mr Reid made a two-day visit during which he sought to persuade Prince Sultan, the Crown Prince and Defence Minister, to re-equip his air force with the Typhoon, the European fighter plane of which the British arms company BAE has the lion’s share of manufacturing.

Defence, diplomatic and legal sources quoted by The Guardian said negotiations were stalling because the Al-Saud were demanding three ‘favours’. They are: that Britain should expel two anti-Saudi dissidents, Saad Al-Faqih and Mohammed Al-Masari; that British Airways should resume flights to Riyadh, now cancelled through terrorism fears; and that a corruption investigation implicating the Saudi ruling family and BAE be dropped.

Downing Street will face dissent, especially from the Foreign Office, if it is indeed seriously considering making such concessions, not least because the existing supply of Tornado warplanes involves the presence of thousands of British technicians in Saudi Arabia. A follow-on Typhoon deal would lead to the influx of thousands more with their families, who might become targets for terrorists.

While the Al-Saud has scored some remarkable successes in its fight against home-grown Al-Qaeda cells, Riyadh-based Western diplomats continue to warn that terrorists are planning more attacks inside the kingdom.

Relations with US

In Washington, meanwhile, Pentagon officials have notified Congress of its intention to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia worth US$2.1 billion (S$3.6 billion).

Prof Gregory Gausse, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont and author of Oil Monarchies, said the crisis in US-Saudi relations has passed its peak. He said: ‘While American public opinion remains strongly anti-Saudi, and Saudi public opinion even more strongly anti-American, the elites on both sides have found a new, post-9/11 equilibrium.’

But others have a more sceptical assessment of the arms deals.

They signify ‘the hollowness of the rhetoric of democracy and human rights by both the US and UK governments, and may also signal some worry about the stability of Saudi Arabia’, said Prof Asad Abukhalil, author of The Battle For Saudi Arabia.

Other voices continue to push for a harder line against the Al-Saud, especially when it comes to the issues of religious freedom and the promotion of extremism.

Although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has delayed a decision on sanctions for six months, the issue will not go away.

Some members of the American government are also demanding that Saudi Arabia account for its distribution of ‘hate material’ to American mosques, as the Senate plans to investigate the propagation of radical Wahhabism in the US.

The flurry of activity comes after a report from the Centre for Religious Freedom revealed that dozens of mosques in major cities across the country, including New York, Washington and Los Angeles, were distributing documents, bearing the seal of the government of Saudi Arabia, that incite Muslims to acts of violence and promote hatred of Jews and Christians.

A Washington-based group that is part of the human rights organisation Freedom House, the Centre for Religious Freedom, also found during its year-long study that the Saudi-produced materials describe democracy and America as un-Islamic.

They instruct recent Muslim immigrants to consider Americans as enemies and the materials urge new arrivals to use their time in the country as preparation for jihad, the report claims.

In response to the Freedom House report and as part of the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act of 2005, sponsored by Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the Senate judiciary committee (of which Mr Specter is chairman) is expected to hold hearings into the hate materials today.

The subject up for discussion – Saudi Arabia: Friend Or Foe In The War On Terror? – suggests there are still many obstacles to overcome on the road to smoother Saudi-US relations.

Indeed, the US Congress armed services committee last month considered, in an open hearing, the prospects for a military or Islamist coup in Saudi Arabia.

The committee was told by Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O’Hanlon that, if ordered to secure the Saudi oil installations, the US army would need to deploy some 300,000 troops – twice as many as those now deployed in Iraq.

Other witnesses testifying in closed hearings discussed the possibility of political unrest or an outright coup d’etat against the monarchy.

‘This type of scenario has been discussed for at least two decades and remains of concern today – perhaps even more so – given the surge of terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia in recent years as well as the continued growth and hostile ideology of Al-Qaeda,’ Mr O’Hanlon told the committee.

He outlined various scenarios, including a fundamentalist coup that installed a regime with close ties to Al-Qaeda and intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Another scenario was that a new coup regime would seek to put pressure on the West by disrupting the world oil market. Many Western countries would probably want to wait and see what sort of regime emerged from a coup, he suggested.

‘It might be feasible not to do anything at first, and hope that the new regime gradually realised the benefits of reintegrating Saudi Arabia, at least partially, into the global oil economy,’ Mr O’Hanlon said. ‘But in the end, the US and other Western countries might consider using force.’

‘The takeover of the Grand Mosque and the unrest in the Eastern province in 1979 took place at a time when oil prices were increasing dramatically,’ said Mr Fahad Nazer, a resident fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs and a former press secretary at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

‘Furthermore, the mid-1980s witnessed a downward trend in oil prices and cutbacks in government programmes, but were politically stable. The government is still contending with Islamist militants to this very day, despite the recent surge in oil prices and government surplus,’ he said.

For the West, foreign policy in relation to Saudi Arabia has always been guided by the singular, overriding desire of regime continuity. In spite of its claims that it is an Islamic state, Saudi Arabia has been consistently pragmatic and rational in foreign relations, never using Islam as a criterion.

The ‘better the devil you know’ policy has served the West well. And the greatest fear for the US remains having to deal one day not with the House of Saud but instead a hardline theocracy that runs the country without any checks and balances.

The dual challenge of protecting and reforming Saudi Arabia will therefore remain a daunting one for the US in the near future.

This is the last of a two-part series on challenges facing Saudi Arabia’s new king.

AMERICA’S GREATEST FEAR

For the West, foreign policy in relation to Saudi Arabia has always been guided by the singular, overriding desire of regime continuity. The ‘better the devil you know’ policy has served the West well. The greatest fear for the US remains having to deal one day not with the House of Saud, but a hardline theocracy that runs the country without any checks and balances.

Israel expecting little change following Saudi king’s death

Herb Keinon

August 2, 2005

The death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the announcement that Crown Prince Abdullah will succeed him is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the desert kingdom’s relations with Israel, according to academic and diplomatic assessments in Jerusalem.

According to the Foreign Ministry, since Abdullah had been leading Saudi Arabia for all intents and purposes since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, the country’s hostile policy is unlikely to change – either for better or for worse.

While Abdullah’s succession to the throne is expected to go smoothly, there is concern that – since he is 82 and new Crown Prince Sultan is 81 – Saudi Arabia could now face a period in which one ruler would quickly succeed another, bringing uncertainty and instability. The concern is of a situation similar to that which faced the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, when Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who died less than two years later and was in turn followed by Konstantin Chernenko, who died just over a year after that.

Abdullah was behind the 2002 Arab peace initiative that called for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital in exchange for an end to the “Arab-Israeli conflict” and the establishment of “normal relations” with Israel. That plan withered after running into Israeli opposition, which did not see anything new in it and was underwhelmed by a promise of normal ties, rather than a normalization of ties, and a general lack of enthusiasm from Washington.

Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies who specializes in Saudi Arabia, said Abdullah might feel that as king he would have a bit more maneuverability to push the initiative further.

At the same time, he said this is unlikely in the near future, because Abdullah would want to wait to see how the disengagement process progressed, before expending any energy in a diplomatic initiative.

Furthermore, Teitelbaum said that with all the internal Saudi problems, Abdullah would likely continue to focus on internal Saudi issues and not begin to focus on issues beyond his borders.

“Israel is not the main issue here, the main issue is internal stability – rampant unemployment, the young generation, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism,” he said.

Elie Podeh, head of the Hebrew University’s Middle East Department, agreed that Fahd’s death would be “insignificant” for Israel.

He said that Abdullah would be too preoccupied with worrying about the royal family’s stability – balancing the need to fight Islamic fundamentalism with satisfying calls from the US and elsewhere for democratic reform – to have the time and energy to devote to the diplomatic process.

At the same time, he said that Israel should consider issuing a statement marking Fahd’s death, combining condolences to the Saudi people with a welcome to Abdullah and a call to move forward on the peace process.

“This couldn’t hurt,” Podeh said, although he added that he didn’t have any illusions that such a statement would generate much of a resonance in Riyadh.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Israel had no plans for issuing any such statement.

This statement might be difficult for Jerusalem, considering Fahd’s long record of hostility. In 1980, Fahd responded to the Knesset law affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by declaring a jihad “to protect the Holy City against Zionist aggression.”

Likewise, in April 2002, after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, he was quoted as telling the Saudi cabinet that “Israel’s continued daily massacres and aggressions in the occupied Palestinian territories, killing of innocents, hiding corpses and demolishing the Palestinian camps, reveal its unwillingness to abide by the will of the international community and its persistence to exterminate the Palestinian people in a flagrant defiance of the simplest human rights principles and international legitimacy resolutions.”

At the same time, Fahd will be remembered here as the author of an eight-point diplomatic initiative that hinted at recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

In August 1981, a year before assuming the throne, Fahd proposed a peace plan that called on Israel to completely withdraw to the 1967 borders, affirmed the “right of the Palestinian people to return to their homes” and called for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as it capital. The one new element in the plan was clause seven, which read that “all states in the region should be able to live in peace.”

This was interpreted by some, including some Arab states, as an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist – precisely the reason the plan was torpedoed later in the year at an Arab summit in Fez.

A year later the plan was adopted, with the “problematic” clause being replaced by another watered-down clause that stated that the UN Security Council should draw up “guarantees for peace for all the states of the region, including the independent Palestinian state.”

Like Abdullah’s peace plan 20 years later, which was motivated in no small degree by a Saudi desire to improve its image in the US after the involvement of 15 Saudi nationals in the September 11 attacks, Fahd was also widely believed to have had the US in mind when he drew up his plan. At the time the US was considering approval of the sale of AWACS and F-15 equipment to Riyadh. Like Abdullah’s plan, Fahd’s initiative also withered and died because of a distinct lack of Israeli and American interest in a plan widely dismissed in both capital as “more of the same.”

Poll: Most Arabs want govt. reforms

Orly Halpern

October 11, 2005

The majority of the Arab world thinks that Arab leaders are corrupt and cause destabilization in the region, according to a recent poll. The poll also showed that most Arabs want democratic reforms. But the democracy Arabs yearn for, show the polls, is far from the type US President Bush envisions.

According to the survey by the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine and the respected UK-based pollsters, YouGov, 71 percent of Arabs believed that “political leaders in the Arab world are “mostly corrupt politicians, who destabilize the region.”

The survey was conducted between August 16 and September 15 using a cross-sample of society from the Middle East and North Africa region with a representative number of respondents from 17 different Arab countries.

“It’s not surprising,” said Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel-Aviv University. ”People are dissatisfied from corruption and from leaders who are in power too long. Look at Egypt. Everybody wants reform in the Arab world.”

Reform is also on the mind of most Arabs. “Wider political participation and more democracy were issues that 69% of respondents viewed as important,” reported the article in Arabian Business. “Some 65% believed economic liberalization was also important and 60% said they wanted lower state control over the individual.”

The polls show Arab masses now have expectations from their leaders and governments. “Assuming that these are a representative sample then it shows that the desire for reform in the Arab world continues to gain steam” said Teitelbaum. “People realize that these so-called reforms such as municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, multi-party presidential elections in Egypt or women getting the right to vote in Kuwait are window dressing and don’t represent real change.”

Not long ago Arabs put their leaders on pedestals. But those days have changed, said Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington, D.C. based think tank.

“We’ve all seen the progression of ideologies in Arab society,” said White. “They began with monarchies which produced corrupt dysfunctional governments. Those were driven out of office by socialist pan-Arab regimes, bringing great expectations that were not fulfilled in many ways: failed wars against Israel, inequitable distribution of wealth and failure of many other aspects of state policy and performance. Now you see people interested in something new. There is a genuinely heightened interest in democracy.”

But whether the respondents understood democracy as it is understood in the West remains in question. “I think when a lot of [Arabs] think of democracy they think in performance terms: better jobs, prosperity,” said White who worked for years in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “I think people are often interested in democracy because they associate it with various successful aspects of government and society. But if democracy doesn’t give them that they will look for something else.”

Approximately 53% of respondents said they were unhappy with the levels of freedom available in their respective countries, 42% said they were content and 5% had no opinion.

However, the desire for more democratic reforms and freedom did not include women. Only 48% of those polled said women should have more equal rights.

Respondents’ feelings towards the US, the country which is pushing reforms in their region, was negative. Of those polled, 57% said they distrust the US a lot and 19% said they distrust it a little.

“The US is the vanguard of the West and the Arabs distrust the West as a civilization that challenges their values,” explained Teitelbaum of the Dayan Center. “The Arabs also believe the US doesn’t support the Palestinian cause and they perceive the US invasion of Iraq as crusader-like.”

The poll also tried to judge whether Arabs link a secular state system with democracy. Respondents were also asked if they believed an Islamic state could also sit alongside a Western-style of democracy: 83% said they believed a state could be both Islamic and democratic. Only 9% disagreed.

Teitelbaum said these results are unsurprising. “Without defining democracy many Muslims would say that Islam and democracy are compatible. Democracy for them means social justice and equal rights. So Islam in a broad way could cover these things.”
The extent which respondents believed Islam should be part of government differed. But only 21% said religion should play no part in the government.

“Judging from all the polls, if you do actually achieve a thorough functioning democracy [in Arab countries], you’re probably going to have a government which will be more Islamic, more anti-American and more anti-Israeli,” said White. “And finally as one small aspect in the greater realm of issues you would also probably have a diminished interest in women’s rights.”

“For that reason,” he said, “if you are advocating a thorough and successful democracy then you must be aware of the potential perils.”

Palestinians and Israelis try dancing to the same beat

John R. Bradley

March 30, 2005

Steps towards peace include playing football and making music together

As Chelsea’s boss Jose Mourinho kicked off an Israeli tour this week to throw his weight behind the drive for Middle East peace, he probably heard a love song being broadcast simultaneously on Israel Army Radio and Voice of Palestine radio.

The duet, entitled In My Heart, is sung in Hebrew and Arabic by Israeli David Broza and Palestinian Wisam Murad.

Like the Blues boss, who travelled to Israel to watch mixed teams of Palestinian and Israeli children play soccer, the singers are helping to rebuild ties soured by years of politicking and bloodshed.

Fighting between Palestinians and Israelis has lessened since a summit last month.

‘These events demonstrate a distinct change in atmosphere. Different ‘music’ is definitely playing in the people-to-people field,’ said Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre, Tel Aviv University.

But he also told The Straits Times that ‘this hope aside, there are many final settlement obstacles still to overcome. If these are overcome, people-to-people ties will blossom. If they are not, they will wither’.

Mr Mourinho, who is in Israel at the invitation of Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, is optimistic.

‘I came to show this country (Israel) is safe and going in the right direction,’ he told reporters as he watched Palestinian and Israeli children playing soccer wearing jerseys inscribed with ‘the right to play’.

All were members of the Shimon Peres Centre for Peace, founded by the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Meanwhile, inspired by the bilingual love song, an Israel Army Radio announcer and the head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation spoke on both stations of their hopes for a new era of peace.

‘One of the biggest impediments to peace between Palestinians and Israelis is the perpetuation of stereotypes on both sides of the divide,’ Mr Massoud A. Derhally, a Jordanian-Palestinian political analyst, told The Straits Times.

‘Notwithstanding the political hurdles’, much has been curtailed over the years largely because of conspiracy theories, innuendo, assumptions and outright paranoia on both sides, he said.

‘The value of cultural exchange is that it humanises both peoples,’ he added.

Some 1,400 children are now members of Mr Peres’ Centre for Peace.

‘Look what football has brought to understanding between Jews and Arabs, between Palestinians and Israelis,’ Mr Derhally said in reference to the Arab team of Bnei Sakhnin, which won the Israeli Cup and is both Jewish and Arab.

But just as popular culture can help to bridge cultural misunderstandings, so too can it reinforce them.

Tamer Nafer, lead rapper of the first Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, writes protest songs that are overtly political, and his live performances feature images of Israeli soldiers clashing with stone-throwing Palestinian youths.

DAM’s polar opposite, Israeli rapper MC Subliminal, has developed his style by adopting US rappers”bling’ image of gold jewellery and fast cars – and adding a large portion of Israeli nationalism.

He is never pictured without his Star of David jewellery, and often expresses his admiration for the Israeli army and police.

While few would expect all forms of expression to lean towards the positive, Mr Michael Young, the Lebanese opinion page editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, said that more recent efforts might at least be a good start.

‘Nothing will substitute for a final resolution of the conflict based on addressing vital issues to both sides,’ he said. ‘Confidence-building is useful in the short term, but unless it leads to something more substantive it becomes mere gimmickry.’

Road to peace in Mid-East still filled with landmines

January 27, 2005

John R. Bradley

In the first of a three-part series on political developments in the Middle East, John R. Bradley of The Straits Times Foreign Desk, who has just returned from Cairo, reports on renewed efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

An Israeli decision yesterday to stop assassinating Palestinian militants followed a hinted Hamas ceasefire and face-to-face talks involving Israeli and Palestinian generals, giving new impetus to the long-stalled peace process.

The Israeli announcement came as United States Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns began a fresh diplomatic tour of the Middle East, saying there was renewed hope for peace talks.

Optimisim about a mutual ceasefire has grown since Mr Mahmoud Abbas replaced the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader earlier this month.

‘There is now a real chance for a return to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,’ said Dr Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information.

‘Abbas is demonstrating a high level of responsibility, in both words and in deeds. It is possible to imagine that negotiations will soon take place on coordinating the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and on getting back to the road map,’ he told The Straits Times.

Last week, Palestinian security police fanned out with Israeli assent in north Gaza to halt militant attacks on Jewish settlers and rocket fire at Israel, ushering in a calm unknown in the years before Mr Arafat’s death in November.

However, many analysts warn that those who wish to remain optimistic should lower their expectations for an ‘interim agreement’ of some kind, saying that a full peace agreement remains a very distant prospect.

They point out that both Mr Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have strong personal motivations for resuming negotiations.

‘The former desperately needs European and US funding, and the latter has made a personal pledge to President George W. Bush,’ said Professor Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre in Tel Aviv University.

‘But a cold assessment of real possibilities leaves little room for hope of real progress, for momentum instead of simply movement,’ he told The Straits Times.

‘This is because the sides are way too far apart on final status issues, particularly that of the claim of refugees to return to pre-1967 Israel. For all Israelis, this is an non-starter. For Palestinians, this is a sine qua non for an end to the conflict.’

The cycle of violence, meanwhile, is unlikely to come to a complete halt immediately.

Even as peace feelers were sent out yesterday, a three-year-old Palestinian girl was killed by gunfire from Israeli troops in the Deir Al-Balah region of the central Gaza Strip.

And Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie this week criticised Israel’s refusal to halt settlement construction and its intention to apply an old ‘absentee property’ law that would strip West Bank Palestinians of holdings in Arab East Jerusalem.

‘We are very, very angry. These are dangerous moves and a bad message of intent from Israel,’ Mr Qurie told reporters.

While for years the Western media generally presented Mr Arafat as the main stumbling block to meaningful negotiations, in the Arab world it is Mr Sharon – routinely described as a ‘war criminal’ in the local media – who is still seen as the main obstacle to peace.

‘On the one side, you have the Israelis putting the carriage before the horse, asking him to crack down on militant groups and make sure they lay down arms,’ said Professor Abdullah Al-Faqih of the Political Science Department at Sana’a University, Yemen.

‘On the other side, Abu Mazen needs to deliver something to the larger Palestinian populace before he can embark on a disarmament of militant groups which enjoy significant support in Palestinian streets. To many Palestinians, those militant groups are the only sign of strength in the face of Israel’s arrogant power,’ he told The Straits Times.

Israel’s decision to refrain from assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad members ‘is certainly a positive development, in so far as it gives Abu Mazen the latitude he needs to integrate these groups under his umbrella’, said Jordanian-Palestinian analyst Massoud Derhally, using the nickname for Mr Abbas.

‘This, however, does not necessarily mean that such groups will see eye-to-eye with the new Palestinian president when it comes to negotiations with Israel,’ he said.

If they do not, he predicted, there will be ‘either a continuation of the previous five years of violence, or even the spectre of civil war’.

Saudi bomb jars militants’ support

Cameron W. Barr

November 10, 2003

An attack on a mostly Arab housing compound Saturday killed at least 11 civilians. Saudi officials blamed Al Qaeda.

JERUSALEM–A terrorist bombing in the Saudi capital Saturday night suggests that Saudi Arabia’s family-run government may be facing a more direct threat from within than ever before. But popular revulsion at the attack on civilians, including children, may strengthen the government’s hand in confronting its opponents.

Saudi officials and analysts blamed Al Qaeda for the attack, which killed at least 11 people and injured more than 120, at a residential compound in Riyadh that houses mainly families from other Arab countries. Previous attacks of similar magnitude in Saudi Arabia have almost always targeted the US.

The militants responsible for Saturday’s attack are “no longer targeting Westerners, now they just basically trying to disturb the entire country,” says Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi political analyst and businessman.

In so doing, says Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of the English-language daily Arab News in the port city of Jeddah, “These people are pulling a rope around their own necks…. The Saudi government is relentless these days and I think these guys are losing.”

Even so, says one Western diplomat in Riyadh who spoke on condition of anonymity, the attack shows that those responsible for the Saturday bombing can act even when the government believes a strike is imminent. Last week, Saudi security forces clashed with suspected Al Qaeda supporters in Mecca, killing two and seizing a cache of weapons. Two other suspected militants blew themselves up to avoid arrest in Mecca, and a fifth suspect was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh.

“Although we’re onto Al Qaeda in the kingdom,” says the diplomat, citing the work of Saudi and other governments, “they are still able to operate. There’s no reason to relax vigilance.”

But Saudi analysts also argue that the militants have crossed a line in striking Muslim civilians, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. News reports from the bombing site described a scene of collapsed villas and blackened palm trees, where bits of concrete and children’s toys littered the ground.

“They have selected this target wrongly as far as their propaganda is concerned; they are going to lose substantial support among people who used to show some sympathy for them,” says Mohsen al-Awaji, a Riyadh lawyer and a moderate Islamist activist.

According to the diplomat, no more than three or four Western families lived in the compound, which was home to many expatriates from other Arab countries, mainly Lebanon. But the compound is located near several royal compounds, including that of Interior Minister Prince Nayef.

The Saudi government has always had to walk a fine line in combatting Al Qaeda and other militants who claim to act from religious motives. “The government is based on Islamic legitimacy, and to crack down, you really need to make arrests of popular preachers,” says Joshua Teitelbaum, an Israeli expert on Saudi affairs. “But if you start arresting these people you may find that you have less Islamic legitimacy, because you’re arresting Islamic preachers. Those have always been the horns of the government’s dilemma.”

Following a set of suicide bombings in Riyadh on May 12, which killed 35 people, including eight Americans, the Saudi government has intensified its efforts against militant groups, arresting hundreds of suspects and confiscating weapons and explosives. It tightened procedures for transferring money and cracked down on charities suspected of funding militants. It also detained hundreds of clerics and says it has sent more than 1,000 to be “reeducated.”

Al Qaeda itself may have received little overt support from Saudi clerics, but the issues it raises – such as the need to rid the country that hosts Islam’s holiest sites from “infidels” or anger at the US – have drawn broader support.

Mr. Maeena says Saturday’s attack will create a backlash. “Nobody in his right mind – if you claim to be a practicing Muslim – can support this kind of thing. It’s horrendous.”

Mr. Awaji, who is initiating an effort to mediate between the government and the militants, says the situation in Iraq is influencing events in Saudi Arabia. “The news coming from Iraq” – especially the reports of rising US casualties, “is encouraging militants to go ahead with jihad everywhere,” he says, using the Arabic word meaning “holy struggle.”

“They believe Iraq is a new Afghanistan for them,” he adds.

Some Saudi analysts were appalled that militants acting in the name of Islam could attack civilians during Ramadan, a month when many Muslims fast and concentrate on spiritual matters. But Awaji says the timing may not have held special significance for those who perpetrated the bombing of the compound. “It’s meaningless for them,” he says, “the whole year is open for their operations.”

If the popular revulsion holds, it may make it easier for the government to expand its actions against Al Qaeda and other militants, but that assumes that the government is still holding back in deference to political or religious sensibilities.

Teitelbaum, a scholar at Tel Aviv University, says commentators voiced similar disgust after the May 12 attacks. The government’s hand “will be strengthened, but I don’t see the difference between this attack and the May attack.”

Mideast scholar weighs Saudi ‘normalization’ plan

Joe Eskenazi

March 15, 2002

When it comes to the headline-grabbing Saudi peace proposal, Joshua Teitelbaum’s reaction resembles the punch line of the popular ad campaign of the 1980s: Where’s the beef?

That’s not to say the Bay Area-born Middle East expert isn’t willing to give peace a chance — even a vague offer, that, in Teitelbaum’s words, needs a “lot more meat on its bones.”

In an offer last month, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah “proposed normalization with Israel at the end of the process of withdrawal. The normalization component is something that’s very interesting and new,” according to Teitelbaum, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University who has lived in Israel since 1981.

“If he does present this plan at the Arab summit in Beirut at the end of March and actually says the word [‘normalization’] in Arabic, this is quite a significant statement from the leader of Saudi Arabia.”

Normalization “means normal relations, tourism, economic relations, diplomatic relations — an Israeli flag flying in Riyadh with a Jewish star on it. You can’t even display a cross in Riyadh,” continued Teitelbaum, the son of H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and rabbi emeritus at Redwood City’s Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob.

“I would hope [Abdullah] does make such a proposal. Saudi Arabia is not only a major Arab country, it’s also a major Islamic country with the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. For them to talk about normalization with the Jewish state is significant.”

The proposal calls for Israel to withdraw from the territories to 1967 boundaries, while obeying all U.N. resolutions in exchange for formal recognition from the Arab nations. It was initially floated to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last month during a dinner with Abdullah — “a very unusual way to introduce a peace proposal,” cracked Teitelbaum.

While the proposal is still no more than a file on the prince’s desk, talk has spread quickly across the volatile, peace-starved region.

Teitelbaum, however, is not the only Mideast observer to point out how neatly the peace plan has pushed the Saudi origin of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers or 100 of the 158 Guantanamo Bay detainees from the front page.

“Up until two weeks ago, the press was leaning very heavily on the Saudis. But if you look at the New York Times editorial [on Feb. 27], it says the Saudi initiative is interesting. Let’s go with it. This has already been a success from the Saudi perspective,” said Teitelbaum, who delivered a Feb. 28 lecture at the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation’s offices.

“This shifts focus away from American queries about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, why so many students are becoming terrorists. It shifts to the Palestinian issue.”

So is it a publicity stunt or a groundbreaking plan? Teitelbaum isn’t sure what the Saudis think of their own offer, and, therefore, what Israel should make of it.

The Saudi notion of a “full withdrawal” from the territories does not exactly mesh with U.N Resolution 242, which both the United States and Israel agree leaves room for pockets of annexed land along the 1967 border areas to remain in Israel.

Another concern is the Arab interpretations of some of the resolutions could lead to the opening of another can of worms — the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return.”

“If Saudi Arabia puts this on the table and enters into negotiations with Israel, then this is very significant and could move things along,” he said. “On the other hand, the Palestinians may not be happy with that and Israel sees this as something to negotiate, not take it or leave it. If Abdullah sees this as take it or leave it, then it’s a non-starter. If he starts negotiations, we’ve got something to talk about.”

Canada open to all options on Iraq, Graham says

Jeff Sallot

February 19, 2002

The Canadian Alliance is accusing the federal government of a policy flip-flop and of going soft on its commitment to help the United States fight terrorist threats coming from Iraq.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham said yesterday Canada is still open to all options, including military strikes in an emergency, to thwart Iraq’s ambitions to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons that can be used by terrorists.

“We would have to look at the circumstances,” he told reporters.

He was elaborating on Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s comments in Moscow last week that the United States should try to act through the United Nations to put pressure on Iraq rather than take unilateral military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Canada’s policy has been consistent – that UN sanctions should be strictly enforced until Baghdad agrees to allow weapons inspectors into the country, Mr. Graham said.

But he said “an emergency might arise” that could force Washington to take swift unilateral action.

He noted that the United States, Canada and other allies bombed Serb targets three years ago without a UN mandate in order to halt the killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

In the House, Canadian Alliance defence critic Brian Pallister reminded the Liberals that in 1998 Mr. Chrétien said: “Saddam Hussein will not honour diplomatic solutions, so long as they are not accompanied by a threat of intervention.”

Mr. Chrétien “was right then, but he is wrong now,” Mr. Pallister said.

Opinion is divided among Canadian military experts about how Ottawa should respond to U.S. President George W. Bush’s apparent determination to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq.

Jim Allan, a former senior officer who served as a UN observer in Iraq in 1989, said there is no question that Canada should get involved militarily because it is an ally of the United States “and that’s what allies do.”

Canada has the same interest in fighting terrorism as has the United States, and it is only a matter of time before this country gets hit by an attack unless terrorists and their supporters are stopped, Mr. Allan said in an interview.

It is “naive and stupid” for Mr. Chrétien to suggest that the war against terrorism is confined to Afghanistan, Mr. Allan added.

Another retired officer, Jim Hanson of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, said the United States and Canada should not rush in to attack Iraq unless Washington can produce a smoking gun showing Baghdad’s involvement with terrorist attacks.

And even then, the United States would require broad political support around the world, and particularly in the Arab world, Mr. Hanson said.

Toppling Mr. Hussein’s regime without a plan for a stable successor government would create a power vacuum in the region that could be exploited by Iran, yet another state that is on Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” list, Mr. Hanson cautioned.

Canada faces the practical problem that the “cupboard is bare” in terms of available military forces that could be deployed for joint operations with the United States, Mr. Hanson added.

Joshua Teitelbaum, an Arab expert at Tel Aviv University who was meeting with Canadian officials yesterday, said the United States could probably get support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region if Mr. Bush is careful about how he gets rid of Mr. Hussein.

Bin Laden: a ‘Master Impresario’

Michael Dobbs

September 13, 2001

Saudi Fugitive Spouts Militant Rhetoric, but Ties to Violence Remain Mysterious

For the past few months, a videotape has been circulating in the Middle East showing Osama bin Laden appealing to his followers to join a “holy war” against the United States. Wearing white robes and a Yemeni dagger, the fugitive Saudi millionaire goes on to thank Allah for the “destruction” of a U.S. warship in Aden, Yemen.

The 100-minute videotape, a mixture of militant rhetoric and rambling theology, offers insight into the propaganda methods of a man whom U.S. officials have depicted as the leading suspect in Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Although he openly rejoices in last October’s bombing of the USS Cole, and calls for more “blood and destruction” in the months ahead, he stops short of claiming responsibility for the incident.

Since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden has used his public statements to create an image as the leader of a religious struggle on behalf of the disgruntled and the dispossessed of the Islamic world. At the same time, he has maintained an air of mystery about his involvement in specific terrorist acts and his degree of control over a worldwide network of supporters known in Arabic as al Qaeda (“The Base”).

“He is a master impresario and manipulator of the media,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert for the Rand Corp., a research center in the Washington area. “There has been a consistent pattern of him making statements and issuing threats ahead of time, but not taking responsibility afterward. He alternates between the psychological campaign and acts of death and carnage.”

Bin Laden’s statements in the period leading up to Tuesday’s multiple terrorist attacks seem to fit into a well-established routine. Interviewed last month in the mountains of southern Afghanistan by a London-based Arab journalist, he boasted — without going into detail — that he and his followers were planning “a very big one.” Yesterday, however, al Qaeda spokesmen denied involvement in strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while expressing support for the attacks.

One reason for bin Laden’s reticence, according to U.S. officials, may be a deal struck with the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan, where he has been based since 1996. Known as the Taliban, the Afghan fundamentalists have responded to repeated U.S. demands for bin Laden’s extradition by depicting him as a Saudi political fugitive. Taliban leaders deny knowledge of any evidence that he has been involved in terrorism.

By seeking sanctuary in Afghanistan, bin Laden has returned to the source of his political inspiration. Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate, was born in 1957 and is the 17th of 52 children. Bin Laden was an early supporter of the mujaheddin resistance movement formed to oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. “I was enraged,” he has said. “I went there at once.”

At first, his role was limited to fundraising activities in Pakistan. Toward the end of the war, he moved to Afghanistan and took part in several battles against the Soviet army.

At the time, the Afghan mujaheddin were receiving financial and logistical support from the United States and other Western governments. Bin Laden, however, saw little difference between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his view, both superpowers were equally culpable: For geopolitical reasons, the United States might be temporarily supporting “freedom movements” in Afghanistan, but it was on the side of the “oppressive forces” back home in Saudi Arabia.

According to former associates of bin Laden, his anger at the United States grew after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the decision to station thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. In a lengthy statement in 1996 outlining his philosophy, bin Laden denounced the “occupation” of the Arab Holy Land by “American crusader forces,” which he described as “the latest and greatest aggression” against the Islamic world since the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

“He sees himself as continuing the jihad, first against the Soviets and then against the Americans,” said David Schenker, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“He looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University who has studied bin Laden’s early career. “For him, the U.S. represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic world, and particularly to Saudi Arabia, the holiest land in the world for Muslims.”

Kept under house arrest in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, because of his opposition to the Saudi alliance with the United States, bin Laden fled the country in April 1991, moving first to Afghanistan and then to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. A fundamentalist Islamic government had just come to power in Sudan and was permitting Muslims to enter the country without visas, opening the doors for hundreds of suspected terrorists and former mujaheddin.

According to a former associate, Jamal Fadl, now in a witness protection program in the United States, bin Laden used his stay in Sudan both to set up legitimate businesses and to prepare for a terrorist war against the United States.

“In some ways, his organization resembles a government,” said Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University who worked in the Clinton White House. “As in the government, people were often told only what they needed to know. There was almost a classification system for information.”

According to U.S. officials, bin Laden financed several terrorist training camps in northern Sudan and Yemen, and appeared interested at one time in acquiring nuclear and chemical components. U.S. investigators also have established financial and logistical links between bin Laden and Ramzi Yousef, organizer of the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Sudan expelled bin Laden and most of his supporters in 1996 after the United States mounted political and diplomatic pressure. He moved back to Afghanistan and set up training camps in the mountains. According to Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian thought to have been trained by bin Laden who was arrested on the Canadian border in December 1999, the camps offered training in areas such as “rocket-launching, urban warfare, assassination and sabotage.”

Ressam, who told a New York court in July that he planned to disrupt millennium celebrations by bombing Los Angeles International Airport, said that later classes focused on how “to blow up the infrastructure of a country.” But he also suggested that many of the operations were semi-autonomous. He said his cell was given leeway to choose its own targets, and to raise funds by robbing banks in Canada.

Last year, a U.S. court found evidence of links between bin Laden and the organizers of the August 1998 bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States responded to the attacks by bombing suspected training camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan linked by the CIA to the production of chemical agents.

Soon after the attacks, U.S. officials warned Afghan authorities that they risked further retaliation if they continued to give safe haven to bin Laden, who had been charged by a New York grand jury with “conspiracy to attack the defense utilities of the United States.” But Taliban officials made clear that they were unwilling to surrender their guest.

According to U.S. terrorism experts, the Taliban appears to have reached an arrangement with bin Laden. In return for providing him sanctuary, they have received financial and military support for their efforts to gain control over the entire country. Some experts believe that bin Laden’s followers may have played a role in the reported assassination earlier this week of Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the last remaining resistance to the Taliban.

Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

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