What now of the Saudi/US pact?
by Al Venter
Three recent events are likely to have a significant effect on future relations between Washington and Riyadh. The first was a spate of attacks on USA nationals living in Saudi Arabia. That was followed by the final withdrawal of the last US serviceman from the Kingdom and finally, the news late September that Saudi Arabia has embarked on a strategic review that includes acquiring nuclear weapons.
According to a Saudi spokesman, increased volatility in the Middle East, which includes the recent US invasion of Iraq and escalating unrest in Israel, have made a 'security reassessment' imperative. The fact that the Saudi government is prepared to contemplate the nuclear option is of profound significance to the West.
David Albright, head of the Washington strategic think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, said that he doubted whether the Saudis would try to build a nuclear bomb. Instead, he speculated that although Riyadh "might attempt to buy something nuclear... I do not seriously believe that anyone would sell it a nuclear weapon".
What is clear is that Saudi/US relations are presently being subjected to intense scrutiny in the US media, much of it initiated by the 12 May bombings linked to Al-Qaeda dissidents.
The present debate is centred on three fundamental issues: whether the Saudi government is doing all it can to counter terrorism, the extent of infiltration into elements of the Saudi hierarchy by Al-Qaeda and to what extent influential Saudi citizens were involved in the events of 11 September.
This was revealed in classified sections of a congressional report on the terrorist attacks that was later leaked to the media. The claim has been made that some Saudi citizens - possibly Saudi intelligence agents - had links with some of the 11 September hijackers.
That said, there have been watershed changes in Saudi security since a spate of Al-Qaeda-led attacks on expatriate and Saudi targets in and around Riyadh last May. US President George W Bush declared the event a wake-up call for the Saudi royal family.
For his part, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal explained that Al-Qaeda has made a bad tactical error. Instead of the revolutionary effect that it had planned for, he said that the movement has succeeded only "in angering and uniting Saudi Arabia in resisting and confronting the subversive work that they are doing". Interesting too is that much of this output is carefully couched within what both sides call the 'longtime strategic partnership' between Saudi Arabia and the USA, just as it was after the 1995 bombing of the US military mission in Riyadh and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
However, at least one US intelligence official has declared that while the noises coming from Riyadh sound good, "it is far from clear that the problems of the US/Saudi partnership are amenable to tactical adjustments". He pointed to US law-enforcement officials being refused access to any of the family of the 15 Saudi hijackers involved in the 11 September attacks, even though the Saudis offered limited help in obtaining DNA samples from family members of some of those involved.
Washington has also conceded that, since May, the Saudis have broken up "six to eight" Al-Qaeda cells operating within the country, beginning with the shooting of Yousif Salih Fahad al-Ayeeri, the senior Al-Qaeda operative responsible for orchestrating the May attacks. Operating under the pseudonym of 'Swift Sword' he was gunned down in a Riyadh street as he tried to flee in his car.
Shortly afterwards, security officials uncovered three large arms caches of 20 tonnes of explosives and military equipment. The haul included grenades, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades said to have been intended for another attack. More than 200 Al-Qaeda-linked 'dissidents' have since been arrested in a dragnet that also ensnared Ayeeri. According to Jamal Khashoggi, a former newspaper editor, now a senior adviser to the Saudi ambassador in London, the terrorists were clearly planning another big attack in the Kingdom.
It has since been disclosed by Prince Nayef, Saudi interior minister, that Al-Qaeda had established a string of military training camps on Saudi Arabian soil. Consequently, his security forces had raided a number of farms and safe houses throughout the kingdom in which 20 terrorist 'suspects' and a dozen Saudi police officers were killed in the fighting.
Oh my word! This is not at all what we need right now. I sincerely hope they make the decision not to acquire nuclear weapons, but unfortunately I am sceptical of their goodwill on this matter or of the fact that the US will be able to persuade them not to choose that route.