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Can a marriage born of oil continue?
Future rests on next Saudi leader

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Can a marriage born of oil be saved?
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[AP photo 1997]
Right: Saudi Arabia accepts about $1 a barrel less on oil that it sells to the United States than on oil that goes to other nations. This field is owned by Aramco, the Saudi oil company.

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Khalid Al-Malik, editor-in-chief of Al-Jazirah paper, says Mideast tensions fuel Muslim extremism.
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Not until 1994 did the Saudi government revoke Osama bin Laden’s citizenship and make him go.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship faces strains - over Iraq, the Mideast confict, U.S. troops and Russian oil - but for now, many think it will endure

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- It was a marriage made not in heaven, but a hellishly hot piece of desert.

Now, 69 years after oil brought the United States and Saudi Arabia together, can a freedom-loving democracy sustain relations with a repressive autocracy that produced so many of the Sept. 11 hijackers?

Yes, most experts agree, at least in the short run. America is still smitten with cheap Saudi oil, and the Saudi royal family still depends on the United States to keep itself in power.

But in the long term, the outlook is far less certain. America's lust for Saudi petroleum could wane if the United States continues to be wooed by other producers, notably Russia, and if Americans ever get serious about conserving energy.

The pressure for divorce could be even greater on the Saudi side. Many Saudis resent, even hate, America for supporting what they consider a corrupt Saudi regime.

The United States is "in a conspiracy with the regime to loot the resources of our country and ignore 20-million Saudis and deal only with a few thousand royal family members," charges Saad Al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident now living in London.

Thus far, Saudi rulers have kept a lid on internal dissent by outlawing political parties, banning public assembly and restricting the media. While there is "huge resentment" of the royal family, Al-Fagih says, there appears to be little immediate threat of it erupting into violence and toppling the regime.

That means the Saudi government still has the time, if not necessarily the will, to make the changes needed to ensure a successful future -- diversifying the economy, empowering women, and enacting political and religious reforms.

But it could well be a future in which the United States plays less of a role.

In the battle for energy dominance, Russia is emerging as Saudi Arabia's chief competitor. With little fanfare, it has increased its oil output more than any other nation in the past two years. And because of its active role in the war on terrorism since Sept. 11, Russia stands to gain "both politically and economically" as the West looks for long-term energy sources outside the Arab world, a U.S. expert says.

Politically, "Sept. 11 made a world of difference to Russia because it enabled it to once again emerge as an international player and be seen as a major partner on global issues with Washington," says Edward Morse, a former assistant Secretary of State for energy policy.

Economically, the benefits are clear too: Before Sept. 11, the United States got practically no oil from Russia; in May, it bought 225,000 barrels a day.

Speaking to a Congressional committee this spring, former CIA director James Woolsey said the United States must maintain "cordial relations" with Saudi Arabia, especially in light of recent Saudi efforts to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, he said, America should buy as much oil as possible from Russia as a reward for President Vladimir Putin's antiterrorism efforts.

"Saudi, indeed Gulf, oil reserves will be central to the oil business as long as oil is used," Woolsey said. "But I would like for the Saudis to perceive a coordinated Western effort to shift to Russia as much of the world's oil purchases and reliance as is practical."

But the Saudis are skilled at using their own vast reserves -- 25 percent of the world's total -- to preserve their leadership. They have never been shy about adjusting production to raise or lower global oil prices, depending on their needs of the moment.

Eager to preserve its position as America's top crude oil supplier (1.5-million barrels a day), Saudi Arabia now accepts about $1 a barrel less on oil it sells to the United States than on oil that goes to other nations. That amounts to a subsidy of around $620-billion a year for U.S. consumers.

The kingdom wants to keep its share of the U.S. market to show how important Saudi oil supplies are to America, Morse says.

"The Saudi leadership can thus ensure that Washington will help defend Saudi Arabia, which means not only the defense of the kingdom's oil fields and territorial integrity but the defense of the House of Saud."

The benefits and drawbacks of this relationship were dramatically illustrated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. To protect Saudi Arabia -- and its own oil supply -- the United States led a huge international coalition against Iraq and stationed a half-million troops on Saudi soil.

Many Saudis, though, were angry and humiliated that their country could not defend itself without such massive Western help. Long after the war ended, the continued presence of Western "infidels" in the birthplace of Islam prompted the bombings that killed five U.S. soldiers in Riyadh in 1995 and 19 a year later at Khobar Towers.

It was this anti-Western outrage that Osama bin Laden tapped so successfully when recruiting other Saudis for his al-Qaida network. It has also contributed to a far bigger reduction in U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia than most Saudis realize.

Although Vinnell Corp., a U.S. company, still has a multiyear, $831-million contract to train the Saudi National Guard, the number of U.S. soldiers in the kingdom is down to just 5,100. That's barely half as many as in neighboring Kuwait.

The United States is expected to shift even more of its military resources to Qatar and other Gulf nations because of Saudi Arabia's vehement opposition to any invasion of Iraq. Since the Gulf War, relations between the former enemies have improved to the point that Saudi Arabia recently reopened a border crossing with Iraq, enabling Saudi business people to drive straight through to Baghdad.

"I don't see Iraq as a major threat anymore," said Prince Turki Bin Abdullah Al Saud, a brigadier general in the National Guard. "Obviously every military guy has to be prepared and ready for military circumstances, but from Iraq I see no threat."

Despite their governments' conflicting views on Iraq, U.S. and Saudi military people seem to work well together. "After Sept. 11, I had several Saudi officers apologize on behalf of the Muslim world," said Paul Lent, an ex-U.S. army officer who has spent several years with Vinnell training National Guardsmen.

But there is a strong feeling throughout all levels of Saudi society that the kingdom would be better off without any U.S. military presence.

"There is no Saudi who wants Americans to stay in the country -- even the royal family, although it's too coward to say so," said Al-Fagih, the Saudi dissident.

Woolsey, the former CIA director, said it is also in America's interests to get its forces out of the kingdom. In his congressional testimony, he criticized the Saudis for failing to cooperate in the investigations into the Riyadh and Khobar Towers bombings.

"Not only do we not want our use of force constrained in the future by Saudi intransigence . . . but we have now seen the Saudis' lack of cooperation on two occasions when American troops have been killed by terrorists in the kingdom," Woolsey said.

"In my view, if for this reason alone, at the first appropriate opportunity we should move our forces elsewhere."

Bin Laden changed from 'a calm, peaceful' man

The September attacks, involving so many Saudi nationals, further strained relations between the two countries. Though shocked by the hijackings, many Saudis say U.S. support for Israel was partly to blame for the attacks and continues to fuel Muslim extremism.

"The Palestinian cause is the main reason for what is happening," says Khalid Al-Malik, editor-in-chief of Al-Jazirah, a leading Saudi newspaper. "Not until this problem is solved will we be able to solve all other problems."

To show their pique over U.S. foreign policy, many Saudis who usually vacation in New York or Disney World are shunning America this summer in favor of Europe or the Persian Gulf. And some Saudi consumers are boycotting McDonald's, Starbucks and other U.S. chains that do business in Israel.

For their part, many Americans now perceive Saudi Arabia as a hotbed of Islamic fanatics bent on destroying the West.

But a top U.S. defense analyst says there is no evidence the Saudi government itself has ever directly supported terrorism or violent forms of Islamic extremism.

On the contrary, Crown Prince Abdullah, the acting ruler, "has repeatedly made public statements that terrorist actions are un-Islamic," writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In a draft analysis of Saudi involvement in the war on terrorism, Cordesman notes that Abdullah was quick to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks and warn Muslim clerics that the Saudi government would not tolerate "even the indirect support of terrorism and extremism."

Nonetheless, the Saudi regime was by no means blameless in the circumstances that led to Sept. 11. Much like pushing down springs on one end of an old couch causes them to pop up on the other, suppressing Islamic extremism within Saudi Arabia encouraged its spread to other countries where its rise went virtually unchecked.

Saudi rulers were slow to realize that extremism had become a serious problem in Central Asia -- especially Afghanistan, where many young Saudis went to fight the Soviets, and Pakistan, where Saudi-funded madrassas, or religious schools, taught students to hate non-Muslims and engage in violence.

Some senior Saudi princes admit they also ignored problems in their own education system, which "advocated extremist views of the world and contained significant anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content," Cordesman says.

The Saudi government was lax, too, in monitoring Islamic charities that funnelled millions of dollars to Hamas, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. And it belatedly realized that one of its own citizens, Osama bin Laden, had evolved from an Islamic freedom fighter in Afghanistan into a serious threat to his own country and the entire world.

It was only when bin Laden criticized his government's decision to call in outside forces during the 1991 Gulf War that one Saudi leader noticed "radical changes" in his personality.

"He changed from a calm, peaceful and gentle man interested in helping Muslims into a person who believed he would be able to amass and command an army to liberate Kuwait," Prince Turki bin Faisal, then Saudi intelligence chief, said in an interview with Arab media. "It revealed his arrogance and haughtiness."

It was not until 1994, though, that the Saudi government revoked bin Laden's citizenship and ordered him out of the country.

Since Sept. 11, Cordesman says, Saudi rulers have been making a far greater effort to monitor Saudi involvement in extremist groups. Still, he notes, it took the government nearly four months to freeze the assets of scores of suspected terrorists. And it was not until March that it ordered all charities to report on their foreign projects and take steps to ensure the money was not going to terrorist causes.

But if Saudi Arabia contributed to the extremism that exploded on Sept. 11, "Westerners and Americans in particular need to recognize that they too bear some of the blame," Cordesman says. The West also supported Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, then did little to monitor the rise of Islamic extremism there and in other parts of Central Asia and the Balkans.

Now, as some factors pull them apart, others push the United States and Saudi Arabia together to fight the violent fanaticism each had a hand in creating.

"Extremism is rampant today," says Prince Sultan Bin Salman, a member of the Saudi ruling family. "It is the most dangerous challenge of the 21st century."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
The appointed advisory body, the Shura Council, meets. To stem dissent, political parties are illegal, public assembly is banned.