Capitol Hill Gets "A Real Look at Saudi Arabia"

By Hanley, Delinda C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Capitol Hill Gets "A Real Look at Saudi Arabia"


Hanley, Delinda C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Experts provided in-depth analysis on U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations at a June 17 breakfast briefing at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill sponsored by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC) and the MidAmr Group. Panelists at the briefing-"Beyond the 20-Second Sound Bite: A Real Look at Saudi Arabia" provided attendees a perspective different from that usually heard on the Hill.

Long-time Washington Post journalist Thomas Lippman, now a Middle East Institute scholar, said he is writing a book, The American Experience in Saudi Arabia, which examines the history of U.S. policy toward the Kingdom. Washington decided long ago that it was in its interest to support the royal family and encourage sound business development in Saudi Arabia. In its relations with the U.S., the Saudi government has survived multiple disruptions and upheavals, including the 1967 and 1973 wars.

Two big issues handicap relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, according to Lippman-Israel and education. While Saudis understand the political pressures at home that fuel unconditional U.S. support of Israel, the Kingdom still expects reform and even-handed peace efforts. In turn, Americans criticize the Saudi educational system, and call for reform and modernization.

Until 9/11, relations between the two countries were good. Americans helped establish the Kingdom's first public libraries, hospitals, roads, television stations, the national airline,and other vital institutions. The U.S. is Saudi Arabia's biggest trading partner, and Americans continue to find Saudi Arabia a good place in which to live and do business, Lippman concluded.

Graham Fuller tackled the subject of politcal Islam. Fuller, a 20-year foreign service veteran who served mostly in the Muslim world, and a former vice-chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council, described political Islam as a major vehicle for opposition movements everywhere in the Middle East. As for the small group of liberals working for reform, Fuller said, "You just can't get out a crowd to chant for Western values in the Middle East."

The religious establishment must support a regime to give it legitimacy in the Muslim world, he noted, and Saudi Arabia is no exception; its royal family needs the approval of religious leaders. The royal family has had clashes with religious leaders, who fear that modernity and technology-such as access to Hollywood films and driving or voting rights for women-may erode family values. Changes must occur slowly and come from within, Fuller warned, without outside Western pressure.

Tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are at an all-time high after 9/11, with security consequences on both sides. "Much of the Kingdom is in denial at the popular level that Saudi Arabians even participated in the 9/11 attacks," Fuller said. "The Kingdom has never been subjected to such an assault by the media in this country. The vehemence, passion, anger, ignorance, and prejudice expressed here has shocked Saudis."

The removal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia will begin to lower anti-American tensions, Fuller told lawmakers. It was hard for Saudis to allow non-Muslim troops to enter their country to kill other Muslims in Iraq, he said-and then they wouldn't leave! While every Saudi knows that what Osama bin Laden and his followers did on 9/11 was wrong, criminal and against Islam, he has, nevertheless, become a symbol for radical Islam. The May 17 compound bombings shocked both Saudis and Americans and reminded them that the Kingdom must walk a fine line when it comes to U.S. cooperation.

Dr. John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, said that while many Americans believe that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is simply a matter of receiving Saudi oil and gas in exchange for U. …

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