Geography and the incendiary politics of the Middle East are drawing Saudi Arabia into a role it does not relish: that of ally in a U.S. military campaign.
With U.S. troops, planes and command facilities already on its soil, Saudi Arabia is positioned to play a key role in the marshaling of Western forces for a possible intervention in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At the same time, the ruling royal family and government cannot appear to be working too hard to help the U.S. in its hunt for millionaire Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, whose anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish rhetoric plays well in some quarters of the Arabian peninsula.
That domestic political concern has led Saudi Arabia to condemn the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Washington area, but to offer only tepid support for military action against bin Laden and the Taliban, the ruling Afghan regime that harbors him.
Only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates had recognized the Taliban before the terrorist attacks in the United States. Since then, the United Arab Emirates has withdrawn its support. Saudi Arabia also has decided to sever ties with the Taliban and made the announcement early Tuesday. Concerns over reaction in Saudi Arabia have postponed the announcement.
`Sympathetic to the Taliban'
"Saudi Arabia is likely to have the most ambivalent, complex role in this new coalition," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a policy study group based in Philadelphia. "It is fundamentally very sympathetic to the Taliban."
U.S. officials have shrugged off reports that the Saudis have declined to cooperate in the staging of U.S. forces in their country.
On Monday, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell described the Saudis as cooperative
Bush said there had been no indication that the Saudis "won't cooperate once they understand exactly our mission."
"We're working with the Saudis," said a State Department official. "We're getting the things we need."
The official denied reports that the Saudis have prohibited the U.S. from using a key command center from which it can direct air strikes thousands of miles away. But it is not clear whether the U.S. has yet made that request.
U.S. expectations unclear
No one is surprised, however, that the course of current events, with its promise of another military intervention in the Middle East, would be difficult for the Saudi government. Nor is it clear just what support the U.S. is seeking.
"I'm not real sure we've couched it right yet," said Edward Atkeson, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What we've technically asked for isn't clear. I think we've got to give much more attention to the sensitivities that these governments have to the conservative elements in their own societies."
Those elements--Islamic fundamentalists who run the gamut from pious religious leaders to militants like bin Laden--have had a steady influence since the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1991.
They have long pressed for the U.S. to leave the region, and for an end to the monarchy and government headed by King Fahd.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Saudi government welcomed the massive Western military buildup. The royal family saw Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein as a direct threat to its security and its oil-driven economy.
But the clumsy end to the Iraq war left Hussein in power, with U.S. and British planes remaining in the region to the north and south of Iraq.
More than 10,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, along with an expanded air operations command center that was completed last summer at Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh. From there, U.S. officers can direct air operations throughout the Persian Gulf region, and into Afghanistan.
But the continuing U.S. presence in the region has become an irritant for the Saudi royal family, and a sensitive security concern for the U.S.
In 1995 terrorists killed four Americans who were in Riyadh to help train the National Guard. The next year, 19 U.S. servicemen died when a car bomb was detonated outside their apartment building in Dhahran. Saudi cooperation in the investigation of the latter attack was halting, angering U.S. diplomats and law-enforcement officials.
Saudi Arabia joined with other Persian Gulf nations last week in denouncing the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. But whether it will lend its territorial support, or troops, remains unclear.
Atkeson suggests the formation of a large, Islamic force to take part in the action in Afghanistan.
"The whole thing about the formation of an indigenous international Islamic army would be to cooperate against this threat," Atkeson said. "They could take volunteers and send them in and it would be an Islamic army, not a Christian one."
The feasibility of such a force, however, may be unlikely without Saudi involvement. So far, even Saudi Arabia's participation in a coalition is something that requires diplomatic finesse.
This time around there is no direct threat, but there are political consequences if the ruling royal family embraces the new anti-terror campaign with too much enthusiasm. Even while condemning the Sept. 11 attacks, the government tempered its remarks by stating that it also condemned Israel's actions against Palestinians.
"This is not going to be a conventional war. Their role will be political eyewash," Pipes said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times