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Exchanging Views: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah and President Bush

April 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s U.S.-Saudi summit, and what it may mean. We begin with a report by Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to President Bush’s Texas ranch comes at time of rocky U.S.-Saudi relations. The two leaders went into their meeting with different perspectives on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam with a population of 20 million people, is one of the United States’ most important Arab allies. Abdullah is de facto leader because his half brother King Fahd is too ill to govern. The desert kingdom’s vast oil reserves, 25 percent of the world’s total, have bound Saudi Arabia in a close 70-year relationship with the United States.

SOLDIER: Forward, march!

KWAME HOLMAN: That bond intensified in 1990, when the Pentagon deployed more than half a million American soldiers to Saudi Arabia, establishing a base for the war against Iraq. Thousands of U.S. soldiers still are based there. But since September 11, relations between the two countries have been strained. According to the FBI, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and private Saudi money helped fund the al-Qaida terrorist network. Although Saudi officials have expressed support of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, they’ve denied the use of their territory as a base for combat missions against Afghanistan. In recent weeks as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deepened so have differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have offered their own plan to end the violence. Abdullah offered the peace initiative and it drew unanimous backing last month from the Arab League. It called for the Arab world to establish normal relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its borders before the 1967 Middle East war and the creation of a Palestinian state. And the Saudis have been critical of the Bush Administration for not doing more to restrain Israel’s incursion into Palestinian areas. Anti-American sentiments are on the rise throughout the Arab world. Even in countries whose governments are friendly toward Washington, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On Sunday the Crown Prince’s foreign policy advisor gave a preview of what Abdullah would say to President Bush.

ABDEL AL-JUBEIR, Saudi Foreign Policy Advisor: Well, he will be coming as a friend of the United States, an ally with whom we’ve had a relationship for over 60 years. He will talk about a number of issues, primarily the peace process. The main advice will be that America must be engaged; America must restrain Sharon, America must put the peace process back in its proper track, because American interests and American credibility and the credibility and interests of America’s friends and allies in the region are suffering tremendously as a consequence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon President Bush spoke to reporters about his meeting with the Saudi crown prince.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our two nations share a vision of two states: Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. I reiterated that all parties have responsibilities to help achieve that vision. The Palestinian Authority must do more to stop terror. Israel must finish its withdrawal, including resolution of standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem, in a nonviolent way. We discussed the need for Arab states to condemn terror, to stop incitement of violence, and as part of a long-term peace, to accept Israel as a nation and a neighbor.

MARGARET WARNER: The President also said he and the Prince had forged a strong personal bond in their more than five hours of talks.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the importance of today’s Bush-Abdullah meeting, we turn to: Kenneth Pollack, former National Security Council Director for Near East Affairs during the Clinton Administration; Ali al-Ahmed, Executive Director of the Saudi Institute for Development and Studies in Washington, a group that promotes democratic reform in Saudi Arabia; and Youssef Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He’s a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and an energy editor at the Wall Street Journal. Welcome, gentlemen. Ken, Pollack, beginning with you. Crown Prince Abdullah is only the third world leader ever to be favored with an invitation to the Bush ranch, President Bush’s ranch in Texas. What most does the President and this administration need right now from Saudi Arabia?

KENNETH POLLACK: The administration needs a few things. First, they need Saudi help to deal with the problems in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. What the Administration recognizes is that while the U.S. has to be the driver of finding some kind of a peaceful solution process, we can’t do it alone.

We need the help of powerful, Arab moderate states like Saudi Arabia. Second, we need the Saudis to continue to cooperate on the war on terrorism and to continue to encourage the other moderate states to continue to cooperate on the war on terrorism, and then finally at the end of the day the administration is considering the possibility of some kind of a military move against Iraq. And, frankly, that’s politically impossible without the Saudis.

MARGARET WARNER: Youssef Ibrahim, fair to say that Crown Prince Abdullah came into this meeting with a very different agenda?

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: Quite fair. I would even go further. I think this may be a defining moment in American-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia came here to say that the pressure it is feeling in the Arab world, the pressure in the proverbial Arab streets have reached a point where the United States has to put an end to the Israeli incursion on the West Bank and put an end, in fact, to the Arab-Israeli conflict and become actively involved.

And it has invoked its relationship with the United States, its oil relationship, its military strategic relationship, and its friendship over 60 years. Abdullah has put all of this on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: And from what you could… I know you could only hear what President Bush had to say, but for instance, he did say that he thought just now that the Israelis had to end their incursion fully including in Ramallah and in Bethlehem. Did it sound like the kind of thing the Crown Prince was looking for or did it not go far enough?

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: I was there just last week. And one has to be there to appreciate the dimension of anger and disappointment with the actions of the United States. The President at that point had said he expected an immediate withdrawal of the Israelis, and he said now our Secretary of State was there and repeated the same thing. Nothing has happened.

This is the age of the Arab satellite revolution. We asked for it and we got it. Al Jazeera and the other satellites are broadcasting over the heads of the heads of states. The Arab street is deeply involved and so the anger is quite widespread. I believe what the President said today is not much different from what he had said in the past, and I don’t think it will play very well in the Saudi street.

MARGARET WARNER: Ali Al-Ahmed, the Saudis prepared for this meeting with a remarkable PR offensive. You saw both on the record interviews and leaked interviews just lambasting President Bush, very critical of him. Why? What do you think they were trying to accomplish by this?

ALI AL-AHMED: I think they’re trying to build barriers ahead and change the subject. The subject in my opinion should have been the Saudi role in September 11. Now the subject is… suddenly is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Middle East peace, not September 11. Nobody is talking about September 11. Saudi Arabia has pumped millions of dollars into Washington and the United States for PR, and for lobbying, to clear its image. Their government needs the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ibrahim, what is your view on why Crown Prince Abdullah came up with this peace proposal, which of course was the first for the Saudis? Was it in part….

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: It was the first for the Saudis.

MARGARET WARNER: Many analysts have said in part they did want to change the subject from Saudi involvement and the involvement of Saudis in September 11.

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: No, I have a different take on this. The Saudis are exhausted by this conflict. This conflict….

MARGARET WARNER: In the Middle East.

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: And the other conflict, the Iraqi conflict has paralyzed efforts in the Middle East to proceed with economic development. The Saudis have also reached the conclusion that a permanent solution has to be a modest solution.

The Oslo solution — Give the Palestinians the West Bank and Gaza. Give the Syrians the Golan Heights and let’s wrap it up. This is the first time the Saudis, who are usually demure and shy and prefer to hide behind other Arab leaders, actually come out and speak not only for Saudi Arabia but for the Arab world. The Crown Prince is here speaking not just as a Saudi leader but as an Arab leader. And he’s saying, look, I’ll cut a deal with you. I’ll deliver the Arab world; you deliver Israel. But do it. Deliver it.

MARGARET WARNER: So Ken Pollack, do you see the prospects for that kind of a division of labor in peacemaking enhanced by this meeting? I know it’s very hard to read because Crown Prince Abdullah — they did not do a joint press conference and he said not a word to reporters. What do you think?

KENNETH POLLACK: I’m skeptical. I think that Youssef Ibrahim is absolutely right. I think that is what is going to be required is that the United States helps Israel, does what President Clinton used to refer to, allowing Israel to take risks for peace. The Saudis need to do the same thing for the Palestinians.

The problem is that right now the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians is such that it’s going to take a tremendous amount of effort to simply get past that. When you continue to have Israeli troops inside the West Bank and you continue to have Palestinians killing innocent Israeli civilians, how do you get past that to get to the point where the U.S. and the Saudis and the other moderate Arabs can try to work some kind of a peace deal?

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Mr. al-Ahmed, are the prospects for this kind of partnership that Mr. Ibrahim just mentioned?

ALI AL-AHMED: I think Saudi Arabia cannot negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. They might assist but not on behalf of the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia has not done much in trying to calm the conflict between the Palestinians with raising money and inciting in the media, local media and allowing people to speak and to give speeches even in mosques. Last week the grand mosque speaker lambasted Israel and the Jews and said no peace with Israel. Allowing such rhetoric to be free does not serve the peace that Prince Abdullah came to promote.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So explain why both these things are going on, why you have Crown Prince Abdullah coming here and saying the kinds of things he’s saying and at the same time this is still going on back in Saudi Arabia?

ALI AL-AHMED: I have a unique perspective on this. I think there are parts of the government in Saudi Arabia that want to embarrass Abdullah because Abdullah does not have all the keys to… in the country. He’s not king. He is crown prince. He’s not able….

MARGARET WARNER: We should explain because the king is ailing with a stroke.

ALI AL-AHMED: Prince Abdullah cannot even fire a single official. He’s frustrated by the government. In two letters this year and last year saying spending… we are in a disaster situation; we don’t have money. He is issuing letters. He can’t issue decrees like the king. There are people who want to undermine his authority and embarrass him probably. That’s why they let the speaker of the grand mosque actually say no peace with Israel and we should not have any rapprochement with Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Youssef Ibrahim, in part of the PR offensive leading up to this meeting advisors to the Crown Prince were saying things like there would be grave consequences for the U.S. and its interest if the President didn’t lean on Sharon and Israel and so on. What do you think those threats really mean and how seriously do you think the Saudis mean them?

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: Seriously. And they are in two areas. One, the strategic military relationship we have with Saudi Arabia is just as important to us as it is important to them. There is a lot of… there are a lot of voices and a lot of pundits here who say, why do we need the Saudis?

We don’t need their oil and we don’t need their army bases. We can move our army to Qatar and in fact we are moving some forces to Qatar already. We can move them to Kuwait. If we want to organize action against Iraq, we can do it from somewhere else. That misses the point completely.

Saudi Arabia is the godfather of the Gulf Arab region. If the Saudis withdraw their cover from the United States’ military presence, how long do you think it will take before Bahrain, which has the largest American naval base to follow suit? And how much do we think Oman and Qatar will cooperate? Secondly, Saudi Arabia is sitting, after all, on one-third of the world’s oil reserves. The other third belongs to Iran and Iraq. And we are not on speaking terms with either of those countries.

We have a lot of national interest in Saudi Arabia, as much as Saudi Arabia has an interest in our protection and in retaining the 60-year-old relationship. But things have gotten to a point in the region where the pressure on Abdullah, on our friends like President Mubarak, on King Abdullah of Jordan, is unbearable. There is a demand in the Arab street for the United States to take a position that is perceived at least in the Arab world as even-handed, and that’s not the case.

MARGARET WARNER: Ken Pollack, how precarious do you think this relationship is. Maybe that’s the wrong word. Do you think it’s at all precarious? Do you take the threat seriously?

KENNETH POLLACK: I think that we do need to take the threat seriously. This is a very delicate moment for the Saudis. They do have internal problems. There are issues that have been long festering which Crown Prince Abdullah has been trying to get at for many years: Problems with their educational, their economic system, political systems.

MARGARET WARNER: And corruption.

KENNETH POLLACK: Goes without saying. All of that could produce real instability in the kingdom over the long term. Add to that the tensions created by the U.S. troops presence, by the violence between Arabs and Israelis, it is a volatile situation, and the Crown Prince is coming over here and saying I have a real problem, and I need you guys to help me address that problem. That said, as Youssef Ibrahim has said several times, there’s a 60-year relationship there.

They don’t want to cut those ties. What they want is to get us to understand what their issues are. On our side as well, we have real problems right now. We are fighting a war with the al-Qaida network, which is a very dangerous terrorist network. We have a whole bunch of other things on our plate, which are all extremely important. We need the Saudis for all of those things. And we’ve got to find a way that we’re going to be able to bridge some of these problems we have now because both camps desperately need the other right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Ali Al-Ahmed, do you agree that both countries really need each other? I should also point out and this happened late today that an advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah did say contrary to published reports they didn’t plan to use oil as a weapon. In any event, do you agree that each country needs one another, or do you think this could be a serious rupture… could occur?

ALI AL-AHMED: I think both need each other. However, there is an issue here that has not been discussed is the Saudi Arabia system itself, it’s the only and the largest absolute monarchy. The relationship between the leader of the free world with an absolute monarchy is and anomalous, unhealthy. There should be some reform to change the absolute monarchy. There is a mutual need… mutual benefit and the relation is older than the state of Israel so it should continue. It is not going to be the same. If you want Saudi Arabia to become that country to modernize it, if it’s not modernized it will carbonize and we’ll have the same problem – we’ll have another Iraq – another Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen all three, thank you very much.