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Background: The Saudi Dilemma

Margaret Warner surveys U.S.-Saudi relations.

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    Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves– 25 per cent of the world's total– have bound the desert kingdom in a close 70 year relationship with the United States.

    The bond intensified in 1990, when the U.S. deployed more than half a million troops to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and prevent an invasion of neighboring Saudi Arabia. Most of the GI's went home after the Gulf War, but 5,000 remained on Saudi soil. It was the presence of U.S. Forces in the home of Islam's holy places that provoked the militant anti-Americanism of Osama bin Laden.

    Bin Laden, the now disowned heir of a wealthy Saudi family, has denounced the U.S. as "crusader occupiers of the Arabian peninsula," and has denounced the Saudi royal family for permitting the American presence.

    Yet, the Sept. 11 attacks also exposed strong links between Saudi Arabia and bin Laden and his militant Islamic supporters. The FBI has said that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and that private Saudi money has helped support the al-Qaida terrorist network.

    Saudi officials quickly expressed support for the U.S. campaign against terrorism, and broke diplomatic ties with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which has been harboring bin Laden.

    But despite a visit from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Saudis have not allowed the U.S. to launch operations from Prince Sultan Air Base, though the U.S. is using it for command and control.

    And U.S. officials have said privately that the Saudis haven't given them enough help in investigating the hijackers and their backgrounds, nor have they done what they could to freeze the assets of al-Qaida supporters in Saudi Arabia.

    All this has led to growing editorial criticism in the United States.

    On Oct. 14, a New York Times editorial noted the lack of cooperation on freezing bin Laden's assets, investigating the hijackers, or letting U.S. planes operate from Saudi air bases.

    "This is hardly the performance Americans expect from a country that is nominally its closest ally in the Persian Gulf region…decades of equivocation…have left American relations with Saudi Arabia in an untenable and unreliable state. The deformities must be honestly addressed before they do further damage to both nations."

    And just yesterday, the Chicago Tribune editorialized: "At the outset of the war against terror, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia proclaimed that it stood firmly with the victims and against the terrorists. The Saudis, it turns out, have an odd definition of the word 'firm.' Their action has not matched the rhetoric."

    Late last month, the White House tried to offset the criticism.

    Press Secretary Ari Fleischer reported that President Bush had called Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to thank him for his cooperation.


    There's been a suggestion that Saudi Arabia is not acting as a good partner with the United States, and the President could not more strongly disagree. The President is pleased that everything that has been requested of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has worked with us productively on.


    Fleischer reiterated that support today.

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