Saudi's Balancing Act

Caught between its American alliance and widespread anti-Americanism, Saudi leaders oppose the war officially but assist US forces all the same.

Saudi's Balancing Act

Caught between its American alliance and widespread anti-Americanism, Saudi leaders oppose the war officially but assist US forces all the same.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Having vainly sought to prevent war, Saudi Arabia has resigned itself to the only course now left open: to limit its potentially disastrous consequences for Iraq, the region and itself, and to play what part it can in shaping the post-Saddam order.

"To say that we are deeply worried about whatever might come after Saddam - the violence, the chaos, or the political vacuum - is to say the simple truth," said a high government adviser.

At the street level, there is no outward sign of any such alarm. As the capital awoke to the news that the war had begun, there was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than the quiet beginning of just another Muslim weekend. Unlike other Arabs, the Saudis are not much given to public demonstrations.

"People keep to themselves," said one. "But you can be sure they are all glued to their television sets, and the channels they are mostly tuned into will be Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar" ­ the trenchant, Qatar-based satellite channel and the Beirut-based voice of Hezbollah.

A peculiar habit of the Saudis is to bombard one another with text messages on their mobile phones: "I have received dozens today," said one, "like 'God protect Iraqis from the boots of American soldiers' and 'God once drowned Pharaoh and his court ­ may He now sink an American aircraft carrier.'"

The outbreak of war has put the government in a very delicate position. On the one hand, it seeks to preserve the favour of the United States ­ severely impaired since September 11 ­ and any influence over its Iraq policies which that might earn it; on the other, it has to humour the feelings of a profoundly anti-American public.

"Under no circumstances will Saudi Arabia take part in the war against brotherly Iraq," Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, said in an eve-of-war statement. "Its armed forces will not enter an inch of Iraqi territory. We expect the war to end the moment UN Security Council Resolution 1441 to disarm [Iraq] of weapons of mass destruction has been implemented, and we categorically refuse that Iraq come under military occupation."

Yet almost everyone in the kingdom is aware that the government is trying to make things as easy as it can for the Americans. It is going out of its way to ensure the flow of oil to world markets. For the past three months it has been building up a special, 50-million-barrel reserve which it will release in the event of any war-related disruption of supplies.

And the Crown Prince's categoric assertions about Saudi Arabia's non-participation in the war are less than frank. True, it has not offered its territory as a launching pad for the ground assault on Iraq. But it has granted lesser forms of collaboration, including the use of the key command-and-control facilities at Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh, and overflight rights for aircraft and missiles. A contingent of US troops is stationed near the Iraqi border for "defensive and humanitarian" needs.

The oil-rich desert kingdom is America's most loyal Arab ally. The official equivocations are inspired, among other things, by the very awkward fact that anti-Americanism here has reached an unprecedented level ­ the most intense, perhaps, in the entire Arab world. An opinion poll published this week shows that only 3 per cent of the population takes a "favourable" view of the US, compared with 12 per cent last year - the lowest of the five, officially pro-American countries in which the poll was conducted.

Some 170 leading Saudi intellectuals recently signed a statement urging all Arab states to "deny US forces facilities for attacking Iraq" and to "use the oil weapon to defend Arab interests". Thirty-two high-ranking Islamic scholars and preachers declared that it is religiously impermissible for Muslim governments or individuals to "cooperate" with the US war on Iraq. A moderate Islamist warned that, once the bombing of Iraq started, "all Western people in Arabia will be in trouble one way or another; no one can stop that unfortunately" ­ a reference to random terrorist attacks in which two Britons and a German have so far died.

The Westernised, often American-educated elite have become perhaps the most angry and embittered segment of society. Indignation at the almost daily televised spectacle of Palestinians dying at the hands of American-supported Israel merges with a specifically Saudi indignation at the humiliations, insults and abuse deemed to have been heaped on the kingdom since September 11 by American officials, politicians, religious leaders and commentators.

None of this anti-Americanism means, however, that Saudis, government or people, are indifferent to the almost certain silver lining: the removal of a generally detested Arab leader, "the Arab Nero of our times," as the editor of Al-Riyadh, the kingdom's best-selling newspaper, described him. Some of the Saudi intelligentsia ­ a minority, perhaps, but an influential one ­ ask, as this columnist in Al-Watan, "Where were Saudi intellectuals when Saddam used his chemical weapons on Halabja, when he invaded Kuwait and set its oil fields on fire? Why didn't they send a petition to the Iraqi ambassador in Riyadh then?"

Now that the war has begun, it is important that it be as swift and surgical as possible. The longer it lasts and the greater the slaughter of Iraqi civilians, the harder it will be to appease or suppress popular anger directed not only against the Americans, but at the complicities of all Arab rulers.

The regime has its excuses. In his eve-of-war address, Crown Prince Abdullah said that the failure to stop the war was a wider Arab failing. That argument, taken together with his personal popularity and "nationalist" reputation, find considerable favour. "Of course," said a former newspaper editor, "it is shameful that non-Arab Turkey should have been the one to deny access to US troops, not the Arabs themselves. But it is an Arab shame, not just ours."

David Hirst, veteran Middle East analyst and long-time Middle East correspondent of The Guardian, wrote this commentary for Lebanon's Daily Star.

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