Oil and terror

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October 27, 2001

Oil and terror

While the U.S. relies on Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the war on terrorism, the Saudi government is funding the instruments of its own demise

Isabel Vincent National Post Rampant government corruption and an increasingly embittered, home-grown extremist movement could soon push Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, over the edge at a time when the United States desperately needs its co-operation to win its war against terrorism.

That is the view of officials of the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. spy agency that, over the past seven years, has been intercepting high-level conversations between key members of the ruling royal family.

Among the NSA's findings, recently published in The New Yorker magazine, is that the regime is so weak that "it has channelled hundreds of millions of dollars in what amounts to protection money to fundamentalist groups that wish to overthrow it."

For years, members of the Saudi royal family have been financing hardline Islamist groups, such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, the prime suspects in the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes against the United States.

In addition to al-Qaeda, some members of the royal family have provided support for other militant Islamist movements, such as Hamas.

To comply with the wishes of the kingdom's hardline religious scholars, who regularly make pronouncements that affect domestic politics, the Saudi government was, at one point, among the largest backers of the Taliban, the ruling regime in Afghanistan that harbours bin Laden.

But while the Saudis have funded such hardline groups, they have also sought U.S. aid and protection to cement their hold on power and to ensure the smooth operation of their oil industry.

In 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. stationed troops in the country to safeguard its oil fields, which supply more than 25% of the world's oil. Analysts say that U.S. military aid has been an important factor in keeping the Saudi royal family in power.

It is a measure of the strategic importance of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia that on a recent visit to Riyadh, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defence Secretary, and his entourage managed to overlook a number of important issues in their meetings with the Saudi government.

Even though the FBI recently confirmed that 15 of the 19 hijackers that participated in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens, Mr. Rumsfeld did not press the Saudi government as hard as he could to help the United States in its investigation.

The United States has also overlooked the fact Saudi Arabia has been slow to join the global crackdown on funding for suspected terrorist groups. At a press conference last week, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, the interior minister, said that Saudi authorities "have not established any accounts linked to al-Qaeda, bin Laden or any quarter associated with terrorism." He has also refused to admit that the terrorists operated on Saudi territory.

For its part, Washington is desperately trying to preserve the status quo in Saudi Arabia. The United States receives more than 14% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, and "does everything it can," according to one U.S. government source, to maintain diplomatic relations.

However, Mr. Rumsfeld did manage to persuade the Saudis to let U.S. aircraft use a vital air base south of Riyadh. The Saudis made the United States promise not to launch attacks against Afghanistan from the base.

The Saudi gesture was seen as an appeasement to the ultra hardliners in the government, who frown on negotiating with non-Muslims.

"The Saud family has often been criticized for the appearance that they are in America's back pocket," said Earle Waugh, a religion professor at the University of Alberta. "Osama bin Laden's complaint has been that the Saud family is much more attuned to what America wants, and doesn't care about its own citizens."

For many fundamentalist Saudis, the Saudi government has ignored some of the kingdom's most pressing concerns, such as severe unemployment in a country where the majority of the population -- 14 million people -- is under the age of 18. In the early 1980s, per capita income was US$28,000; now it is below US$10,000.

Moreover, in a country with an estimate 25% of the world's oil, corruption and mismanagement has contributed to rolling blackouts and severe water rationing for the last several years.

In some of the NSA intercepts, members of the royal family speak openly about stealing millions of dollars from the state, withholding evidence from at least one police investigation and partying with prostitutes. Tabloids around the world are often filled with stories about the drinking binges and wild parties thrown by Saudi princes.

According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the Saudi royal family's delicate juggling act of seeking U.S. support on the one hand and appeasing its hardline fundamentalists on the other, has now "boomeranged back home and is increasingly undermining [its] authority."

For the United States, which considers the country its biggest Arab ally, this could be very dangerous indeed.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 27, 2001

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