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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- In the Saudi Arabian cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, towering minarets and odd-looking skyscrapers rise over a harsh, relentless desert landscape. The environment is a perfect reflection of the Saudi people: overtly religious, uncomfortably modern, and afflicted by mirages.
"If there is any victim of Sept. 11, we feel we are the victim, the victim of bias," said Khedir Al-Qurashi, vice minister of education, who expressed these thoughts as part of a panel discussion on education in Saudi Arabia. He was addressing a group of American and Canadian columnists and editorial writers on a recent fact-finding trip through the Islamic world. And like many of the meetings we had in Saudi Arabia, it quickly devolved into accusations.
"Some of you are probably trying to make the connection between Sept. 11 and our educational system. There is no connection," Al-Qurashi angrily asserted, with the silent concurrence of others on the panel.
The depth of the denial is breathtaking. The fact that about 100 of the 564 prisoners sitting in Guantanamo are Saudi and 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, has not penetrated the consciousness here. The kind of self-reflection we would expect from an "ally," whose madrasas have turned out so many radicals who seek the destruction of the West, is rarely in evidence. Instead, the response is blame-shifting -- with the bulk of it landing on the United States.
"Why is any Arab taking a stand against America?" said Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed, minister of education, "Because of your stand (in favor of Israel.) We wish the American people would treat Palestinians as well as their dogs."
This is the crux of the Saudi mindset. From leaders to average citizens, Saudis say the al-Qaida terrorist attacks were a direct and exclusive byproduct of America's support of Israel. From that vantage, they suggest, the attacks were understandable -- not right of course -- but a consequence of the desperation felt by sympathizers of an occupied people. The delusion colored every conversation we had during our three-day visit to the country.
In the United States we know that Osama bin Laden was a militant critic of the Saudi royal family whom he saw as corrupt and corrupting. We know the presence of American troops so close to the sanctified Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina outraged bin Laden and his followers. And we know bin Laden's concern over the plight of the Palestinians was a late arrival, added as a political tool to gain popular support for his terror campaign. But the press in Saudi Arabia, controlled and mostly owned by the government, cannot offer the full picture. As Dr. Khaled Batarfi, managing editor of Al-Madina Press explained: "We cannot write about the royal family. We do not have the freedoms you do." Which means the people are left with the false impression that bin Laden is a Palestinian revolutionary.
Even those who should know better cling to this belief. At an informal lunch in Jeddah with more than a dozen journalists and other professionals, we were told that bin Laden's motivation had nothing to do with Saudi domestic issues. "It has to do with a nuclear power (Israel) at our border," said Nadia Ali-Reza, a teacher.
The Saudis cast themselves as the walking wounded. They say the United States is blaming their society for a few bad actors. (We heard about our own bad actors -- Timothy McVeigh, the Columbine shooters and Charles Manson -- ad nauseam.) The American media is using Sept. 11 to demonize Arabs, they assert. And while the downing of the World Trade towers was horrific, what America is doing in supporting the brutal occupation of the Palestinians is worse.
For such a young country, the Saudis have an even shorter memory. They take no responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. Just maybe the skittishness of Israel in trusting a land-for-peace deal has something to do with six Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, attacking it the day after it was established; or the flow of Saudi funds into the occupied territories benefiting the families of suicide bombers; or the ugly way Israelis, a.k.a. Jews, are depicted in the Saudi press and schools.
They take even less responsibility for being an incubator for terrorists, bristling at the suggestion that their schools are breeding grounds for Islamic extremists.
All the Saudis had to share with us were their grievances. They wanted us to come there to see for ourselves how misperceived they are by the Western media. But many of us came away sadly convinced that Saudi Arabia is not mature enough or reflective enough to be a true partner in the war on terror.