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Saudia Arabian Explosion: Searching for Clues

June 26, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The perspectives now come from veteran Mideast hands James Akins, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1973 to 1976, he’s now a consultant and has just returned from the Middle East.

Judith Miller is a New York Times correspondent, previously based in the Middle East, and author of a new book God Has 99 Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East, and Shibley Telhami is a director of the Near Eastern Studies Program at Cornell University and a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, and he will be joining us shortly.

So starting with you, Amb. Akins, this is the second bomb attack against Americans in less than a year. What do these attacks tell us about what’s going on inside of Saudi Arabia?

JAMES AKINS, Former U.S. Ambassador, Saudi Arabia: Well, they tell us that there’s certainly a substantial group of people who are very unhappy about the Saudi government. The attack, I don’t think, was really against the United States so much as it was against the government of Saudi Arabia. The attacks were launched against us, I think, because we are perceived as the main underwriter of the main support of the Saudi government.

And they thought that if they could humiliate the United States and particularly if they could cost us to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, this would be a great victory for them and in their battle against the government of Saudi Arabia. They have–they look back at what happened to us in Lebanon. President Reagan at the time said we had vital interests in Lebanon, and we would never be forced out by a group of thugs or vandals or terrorists.

And then after the attack on the Marine barracks and some 280 Americans were killed, in a very few short weeks, we withdrew from Lebanon. And I think that they, the perpetrators of this action, and others, think that they can get us out of Saudi Arabia in the same fashion.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Judy Miller, do you have anything to add to that, or see it differently?

JUDITH MILLER, Author/Journalist: I stood on the Marine compound barracks in 1981–83. And I saw 241 dead Americans being pulled out of that rubble. But, you know, Saudi Arabia is not Lebanon. I mean, Lebanon did not have oil. We had no vital interests at stake in Lebanon. It was humiliating, but I think the case is totally different in Saudi Arabia, and I think the people who did this probably know that.

There is one thing that troubles me. I do remember a previous American President saying that the people who carried out the Marine compound bombing would be found and would be punished. And even after we learned that the trail of that terrible, horrible attack led to Damascus and Tehran, uh, as far as I know, the perpetrators were never punished. I think in this case the United States will have to help Saudi Arabia find the people who did it, and we can wait for the Saudis to punish them. If the fate of the first four men, uh, who carried out the first attack is any indication, they will do exactly that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And those four were beheaded.

JUDITH MILLER: Yes, they were, but really at the end of May, and this attack now comes roughly a month after that beheading, which has led many people to speculate both in Washington and Riyadh that there is a connection between the November attack, the execution of those men, and the bombing yesterday.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because there were threats that there would be reprisals?


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, one group that’s claimed responsibility is a group that everybody–nobody’s saying they know anything about the Llegion of the Martyr Abdullah Al-Hosefi.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Has anybody ever heard of him, Amb. Akins?

JAMES AKINS: I haven’t.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Or either one of them?


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: These are people, two people who were beheaded for, umm, some other–throwing acid last year on a Saudi officer. But let me just go back, Judith Miller, to what this says about what’s going on in Saudi society. I mean, what, what things are happening within the kingdom that would provoke this kind of–

JUDITH MILLER: Well, you know, Charlayne, I really think that people are very unhappy about the economy, first and foremost. I think we have to remember that even though we as Americans think of Saudi Arabia as very rich, they don’t feel rich, and especially the middle class, average Saudi, who sees princes continuing to spend on large palaces and continuing to take lavish vacations, while they’re asked to pay more for electricity, for power, for the daily needs of life.

And I think that we have to recall that Saudi Arabia’s per capita GNP is roughly half of what it was in the oil boom, the heyday of the 70’s. And, therefore, people are looking around and asking why, you know, how well has our money been taken care of–are we getting what we deserve?

And Saudis have a sense of entitlement that Americans can only envy. The average Saudi student is paid about $270 in walking-around money just to go to university. So the cutbacks may be relative, but they’re perceived as real and people don’t like it, and they’re frustrated.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Amb. Akins, you were just there. Is the kind of frustration that Judy Miller was just describing the kind that would lead to an, to an act of this nature?

JAMES AKINS: No, I don’t think so. And, furthermore, the economy is improving now. The government has understood that there are certain problems in this, and they’ve taken measures to make sure that the financial restrictions in the country are not hurting the lower classes.

So I don’t think that this is a main cause. But there are other causes too that I think are props, in fact, I think are certainly more important than that, i.e., the American presence in Saudi Arabia is–was welcomed by, shall we say by the literate classes, everybody who understood what was going on in the world saw that it was necessary for Saudi Arabia to bring in troops into Saudi Arabia to protect them against an impending or perceived impending attack from Iran–Iraq.




JAMES AKINS: That’s right. That’s right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: –and they thought that–

JAMES AKINS: And the American presence, of course, grew very substantially in the country at the time. But this put the king in a very difficult position. The king is, is called the protector of the two holy shrines, i.e., Mecca and Medina. But every Muslim knows that there’s a third shrine, which is Jerusalem. And Jerusalem has been taken over by Israel, and the United States is seen as the main underwriter of Israel. And I think that this is–there’s absolutely no question in my mind that this had a lot to do with the opposition of the people of Saudi Arabia to the American presence in the area.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We’ve been joined now by Shibley Telhami, who as I said earlier is director of the Near Eastern Studies Program at Cornell University and a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. Let me get you to add on to what we’ve been discussing, and that is: What’s going on inside of Saudi society that would propel this kind of, of extreme action? What’s your take on that?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Cornell University: Well, first of all, there are a couple of things. It’s we know very little about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, and our information has not been excellent. We do know at the macro level that there are good reasons for people to oppose the government. The economic performance has been very poor. There’s been a decline in income. There’s been a rise in the population. There is lack of political participation, but there is a little bit more, because one has to ask the question why American forces, if that is the case.

Clearly, I think, there is a resentment of the U.S. partly on foreign policy issues, partly on the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. But it’s deeper than that. I think even if you focus on the domestic issues, the reason for them to think of the U.S. as the enemy–after all, the presence of the U.S. forces is seen to be bolstering a government they want to overthrow–so very tactically, I mean, our forces are partly involved in training security forces domestically. Those security forces are obviously going after opposition, so the very act–the very function of American forces is partly designed to fight those opposition forces. Second–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me. Are we talking about a large–a large opposition, or what?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: As I said, we really don’t know, and partly I think it has to do with the fact that we’ve been very sensitive to the Saudis and not being involved at different sectors of the–of society. We’ve been really involved with the elites and governmental official. We have also had this–what I’ve called the Gulf War syndrome since the Gulf War of being essentially fearful of presenting public opinion as a factor because it turned out after the Gulf War that predicted appeals never materialized, and so I don’t really know the extent of it.

We do know that from human rights organizations, we do know from intelligence reports, certainly since November, the investigation indicates that there is widespread opposition, and there is perhaps opposition that is more passive, not necessarily opposition that is militant, by the middle classes and others who want to play a role in government and have not been able to play a role.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Judith Miller, does this fit into any kind of pattern as far as you can see of revolutionary militancy that’s going on around the rest of the Arab world, or is this as we just heard unique right now to the problems inside the kingdom?

JUDITH MILLER: No. I think you see movements like the ones that you see in Saudi Arabia throughout the Middle East. I mean, they have different names. It’s called the Gamaz Slamia in Egypt, it’s Jaish Mohammed, Mohammed’s Army in Jordan, the GIA in Algeria. But they all seem to want the same thing even though there is no central coordination of them as far as we know, no single source, but these are groups that share a common goal and a common frustration.

I think we have to be very careful to distinguish between a kind of opposition to the government that a lot of people may feel and support for terrorism. A lot of people who are great critics of the Saudi government would never condone what was done yesterday and in November against the Americans, no matter how uncomfortable they are with America’s presence in their country. I think it’s important to keep those distinctions in mind and not to lump all of these groups, opposition and terrorists, into one basket.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Amb. Akins, President Clinton said that he was going to make counterterrorism the immediate focus of the G-7 summit he’s on the way to attending. In your view, could, could that be effective against the kind of threat that, that we’ve just seen the effects of?

JAMES AKINS: You know, I think probably it’s going to have exactly the opposite effect. If you have a situation, as they do in Saudi Arabia, where the Americans are seen as ruling the country, then you have the President go on television yesterday and saying that he was sending out FBI agents to investigate this crime and this morning when he said that, that we are getting full cooperation from the Saudis and then this evening said we will punish the perpetrators of this crime, this feeds right into the hands of the, the people who are saying the Americans are the real rulers of the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Telhami, do you see it that way?

JAMES AKINS: He should have–


JAMES AKINS: He should have been saying, we will–we have full faith and trust in the Saudis, they took strong action against the perpetrators of the first attack on the Americans, we will cooperate with them and work with them, but he shouldn’t imply that we are in charge.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We just have a couple of seconds left. Mr. Telhami.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I don’t see it that way in the following sense. I mean, I agree with some of the sentiment, but I think it’s a mistake to look at this only as a tactical problem here vis-a-vis terrorists. I mean, there is a broader question here about our presence and how we’re addressing our strategy. Our entire foreign policy in the Gulf has been oriented toward external threats. We now realize we have domestic threats. We have really been–


SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Domestic threats within the Gulf, internal, internal insecurity, and we haven’t addressed that, and I think, in fact, the trends are likely to be increasing along these lines, rather than decreasing, no matter what they do. And I think we have to be prepared for it, and we are not.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think we’ll have to be prepared to return to this at another time. Thank you all for joining us.