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E-Letter To The Economist Re: Saudi- U.S. Relations

Your article "Double-Edged Sword" is just the latest example of reporting being conducted in the Western press which ignores historical context in its efforts to paint Ussama Bin Laden as public enemy number one.

In an effort to justify a broadening of the "war on terrorism" the argument is being made with increasing frequency that the spread of extremist and radical elements in Muslim countries is the result of the teachings, charisma and influence of Ussama Bin Laden and that governments in the Muslim and Arab world are hostage to his popularity, and as a result, must tread lightly in their dealings with the United States.

You write:

"The Saudi government sees Osama bin Laden as a threat to its very existence, yet Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognise his hosts, the Taliban, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Even after Mr bin Laden took refuge with them in 1996, Saudi Arabia is said to have helped pay for their drive to take full control of the country. Now that America is planning to hunt Mr bin Laden down, Saudi Arabia seems reluctant to join the chase. According to a report in a Saudi paper on September 30th, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the kingdom's defence minister, has said that America will not be allowed to use Saudi territory to launch any attack on Afghanistan or any other Muslim countries.

This reluctance stems in large part from Mr bin Laden’s popularity among ordinary Saudis. The royal family’s authoritarian rule makes public opinion hard to gauge, but stories abound of his admirers sending one another congratulatory text messages on their mobile telephones after the attacks of September 11th. A more common reaction, according to one Saudi, was suspicion that America was trying to frame Mr bin Laden because of his opposition to American involvement in the Middle East. At any rate, many Saudis sympathise with his denunciation of America’s “indifference” to the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and Iraqis under United Nations sanctions."

While your description sounds plausible on the surface, and certainly may be believable to those unaware of the history of that region, it does not meet with reality. The tensions between the Saudi government and the United States pre-date Ussama Bin Laden and are based upon three factors that you fail to clearly delineate.

First, Saudis have always been weary of the U.S. presence in their country, believing that the presence and influence of the Americans on their soil represented a compromise of Islam by their government. The Saudi authorities have been very sensitive to the norms, values and practices of the American citizens in their country, which represent violations of Islamic law and beliefs. In addition, Saudi Arabia is the capital of Islam, in the East, home of the two most holy cities in Islam - Medina and Mecca. As a result, the Saudis to a degree, have to answer to the rest of the Islamic world in how they handle foreign influences in the holy land.

Second, The Saudis believe that the Americans have unfairly exploited them and their oil resources and that America cares nothing about the Saudi people, only protecting the oil interests that it obtained through a mixture of Saudi ignorance and American duplicity. Look into the history of Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company) and how the major U.S. oil companies defrauded the Saudi government of royalties and concessions. Now, of course, Aramco exploited a resource that the Saudis were doing absolutely nothing with. But the argument that is being used to warm the hearts of the unsuspecting American public - that the Gulf War and this new "war on terrorism" is a war for freedom just does not hold water to the average Arab and Muslim that watches oil rigs, refineries and tankers take millions of barrels out of that part of the world every day.

Third, the Saudis have always resented the U.S. military presence in that part of the world, as it has been used to aid Israel against Arab and Muslim states. Not for a minute do Saudis buy the U.S. argument that the U.S. military presence in the Gulf or the "war on terrorism" is protecting freedom and democracy in that part of the world. This is not an extreme or radical position, but rather a very common one. In addition, Saudis in government and civil society believe that the U.S. has unfairly sided with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, in particular, and on the side of Israel in its relations and disputes with Arab and Muslim states in general.

All of these arguments preceded Ussama Bin Laden's popularity in Saudi Arabia by decades. And the Saudis, in government and civil society, have demonstrated much more virulent opposition toward the United States in the past than they are currently in their refusal to permit U.S. military planes to use their airspace in an attack against any Muslim or Arab country.

You fail to point out that in the Third Arab -Israeli War that at the U.S. oil giant Aramaco's Ras Tanura refinery and oil-loading dock, two U.S. Navy tankers - the Manhattan and the Cantigny were prevented from loading by Saudi students and by the Arab employees of Aramco.

And your article also failed to mention that at that same time, Saudi King Faisal said:

"We will regard any state or country which supports Zionists and Israeli aggression against Arabs as an aggressor against us, and we will take action with all means and with all force against anyone who supports or provides any kind of assistance to the enemy."

There was no Bin Laden present when King Faisal made this statement.

And where was Ussama Bin Laden in June of 1967 in Jedda, when the U.S. embassy and U.S. military equipment was bombed in an incident that was covered up by the U.S. government?

And in October 1973 there was no Ussama Bin Laden present when King Faisal said, " In view of the increase of American military aid to Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to halt oil exports to the United States."

The Saudi government then instituted an oil embargo on the United States that included the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.

No, Ussama Bin Laden's popularity in Saudi Arabia was not created in a vacuum. And you do your readers a disservice by trying to explain Saudi -U.S. relations largely in terms of him. The Saudi people don't "sympathize" with Bin Laden as you put it, it is he who is sympathetic to them. He just has a horrible and inappropriate way of showing it, if the "evidence" against him is to be believed. In a way, Bin Laden and the acts of terrorists have now become a vehicle for the West, and particularly America to avoid dealing with the legitimate grievances that Muslims and Arabs have with this country. If one points out the real reasons for why America is "hated" in Saudi Arabia and other places in the Muslim and Arab world then that individual, in the current environment, is now accused of excusing terrorist behavior. It is a very clever device being used by the West.

By making Bin Laden the source or focal point of the Saudi grievances against the U.S., and even the inspiration of its resistance to being enlisted in the current U.S. effort, you trivialize the entire history of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States and damage the chances of a reconciliation and peace being effected between the Islamic World and the West.

The result of such selective reporting is an increasingly ignorant and confused world that will one day revolt against those who knew more than they told.

This is the wrong issue to handle in an intellectually lazy or dishonest manner.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, October 3, 2001

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