Date: Mon, 8 Jul 1996 16:30:41 GMT
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Dangers of supping with the US

David Hirst, the Guardian, 27 June, 1996

THREE years ago I ran into a young Saudi pilot at the giant airbase where Tuesday night's truck bomb wrought its deadly havoc. From his combat uniform to his transatlantic drawl he could have been American through and through. But it was some very anti-American things he had to say as he climbed into the cockpit of his British Tornado fighter bomber.

He spoke of Operation Desert Storm and the time when he had joined the western "allies" in bombing raids on Iraq. "Look," he said, "Saddam was my enemy then. But now, when that guy turns on his radar, you hit him from right here in Dahran. I don't like that. It is time you did the same to the Israelis."

That encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of Saudi public opinion. On the one hand many Saudis, especially the western-educated among them, have a real affinity for the West, even if it is not always the best of western ways to which they most eagerly take.

On the other hand, they often frankly loathe America's policies and none more than its seemingly incorrigible bias in favour of Israel.

The Saudis may not have any particular liking for the Palestinians as individuals. They mostly know them as expatriates working in the kingdom, and they know that, like millions of others, the only reason they are there is to take their money off them. But that does not mean that, as Arabs and Muslims, they have no feeling for the Palestinian cause. It is often surprising, in fact, how strongly they do feel about it.

And it is not just Palestine: it could be almost anything. The Saudis have even less love of President Saddam Hussein, the monster who might have laid waste to their country, and, like the pilot, most of them supported the presence of half a million western troops on their soil during Desert Storm. But they resent the treatment which the West continues to mete out to their former enemy, not only because the Iraqi people do not deserve to suffer interminably for the sins of their ruler, but because the West is simultaneously so tolerant of an Israel which, in their eyes, is no less a persistent aggressor than Iraq.

It is not only as Arabs and Muslims, it is as oil-rich Saudis too. Together with Kuwait and other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia had to foot the bill for every penny of the US contribution to the liberation of Kuwait. It drained their coffers. Yet the Saudis have gone on paying through the nose for yet more of those expensive, shiny new weapons which Desert Storm itself proved that they can properly absorb, or do not need, because the suppliers of them would automatically insist on coming to their rescue in any new emergency.

The resentment runs so deep that when, last November, five Americans died in the first such act of Islamist terror, a great many Saudis, westernised secular liberals among them, were not noticeably unhappy about it. "The Americans," said one, "should have seen this for what it was: a wake-up call. I, for my part, liked the message. I just did not like the means of delivery."

The House of Saud is deeply aware of the dilemma this contradiction poses. It would like to think, of course, that the anti-US terror is the work of foreign agents, with Iran or Iraq as their likely sponsors. That was its working assumption after last November's bombing. So it was with undisguised sorrow that the Interior Minister, Prince Nayif, announced the truth: four Saudis born and bred were to be beheaded for their "anti-Islamic" crime.

The regime knows that it is a vicious circle, that the more trouble it faces from its home-grown Islamic militants, the more it has to rely, in the final analysis, on a US protection that only aggravates the trouble.

WHERE the Saudi regime cannot prevent a US policy about which it has serious misgivings, it seeks to belittle its own association with it. That is why, for example, it has never formally admitted that the American, British and French planes which police Iraq's southern "aerial exclusion zone" fly out of Dahran airbase for the purpose. All the public is supposed, officially, to know is that they do go from "somewhere in the region".

But what the House of Saud most needs is something that only its American ally can furnish, which is a fundamental change of policy on Israel, and all those Arab and Muslim issues which, in Saudi eyes, are more or less intimately related to it.

That came out clearly when, last month, the US embassy in Riyadh issued a warning to 35,000 Americans living in the kingdom. They should take special precautions, it said, because there were good reasons to suspect that the Islamic terrorists were about to strike again. And it was said that among the terrorists' grievances, this time, were Israel's Grapes of Wrath assault on Lebanon, the massacre of innocents at Qana and the irrefutable evidence this furnished that America "hates the Arabs and Muslims".


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