Princely gesture, words, spurned

Washington Some Americans – I am not one of them – may believe that Saudi Prince Al Waleed Ben Talal was inelegant in following up his generous $10 million relief cheque to the City of New York after last month’s terrorist attacks with a press release that advocated a review of US Middle East policy.

His bad timing aside, his intentions were indeed honourable. “I came here to show my allegiance to New York,” he told a memorial service last Thursday. He spoke after a tour with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of Ground Zero, the demolished site of the gigantic Twin Towers of the World Train Centre and scene of the horrific events blamed on Saudi renegade Osama Ben Laden.

He described the attack that resulted in 5,000 deaths as “a tremendous crime” and said Ben Laden “does not belong to Islam or any religion in the whole world.”

But it was the prince’s press release, issued after the service, which brought out the ugliness in Giuliani. He immediately announced his refusal to accept the donation in protest over the implied criticism of US foreign policy, much to the satisfaction of the American Jewish Committee, which praised the loudmouth mayor. This was not the first time that Giuliani, recognised as a strong supporter of Israel, behaved so irrationally, if not despicably. In 1995, he denied Yasser Arafat permission to attending the United Nations 50th anniversary celebration at Lincoln Centre in New York.

But what was so abhorrent in Al Waleed’s telling-it-like-it-is press release?

“We have come here today to offer our condolences to the people of New York, to condemn terrorism, and to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund. However, at times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause. While the UN passed clear resolutions, numbered 242 and 338, calling for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip decades ago, our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the Israelis while the world turns the other cheek. Arabs believe that if the US government wanted, it could play a pivotal role in pushing Israel to sign and fully implement a comprehensive peace treaty. We want bloodshed to stop and we want to start working for a better Middle East.”

Obviously, the Saudi prince has strong and genuine feelings about the great American city. A nephew of King Fahd, he has amassed a fortune valued at $20.1 billion, placing him sixth on Forbes magazine’s ranking of the world’s richest men, and holdings in Citigroup Inc., Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, AOL Time Warner Inc. and other blue-chip American companies.

He insisted after the diplomatic tiff that he would be “the last one to give a rationale for the (terrorist) attack.” The prince, as a matter of fact, seemed to be responding to a widely felt American torment, shared publicly by President George W. Bush, over the animosity towards their country that seemed prevalent in the Arab world and elsewhere.

In reply to a question on the following day, President Bush told a press conference: “I’m amazed. I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people hate us. I am, like most Americans, I just can’t believe. Because I know how good we are.”

True, but the record speaks for itself and there are still people around who insist on denying the presence of any link between US foreign policy actions and the rage that is evident in the region.

On the same day that Bush spoke of his agony, Dennis Ross, the unsuccessful American Mideast peace negotiator, stood his ground in an op-ed in The New York Times, titled “Ben Laden’s Terrorism Isn’t About the Palestinians.” He argued: “Peace in the Middle East would not make Osama Ben Laden and his other terror networks disappear. Nor would it affect their determination to attack our civilisation and modernity itself.”

His former colleagues in government service took a different view. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told CNN that the US must “deal with some of the issues that animate the hostility” against this country. He identified these as “the treatment of the population of Iraq” and the Palestinians’ “frustration and rage” over their high casualties at the hands of the well-armed Israelis.

William Rugh, a former US ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Republic, acknowledged in a press interview that over the past few years, “American credibility has declined dramatically in the Arab world” because of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the effect of 10 years of sanctions on Iraqi civilians. Rugh is at present president of Amideast, a non-profit organisation that promotes US-Arab relations through education and training.

Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, told a radio interviewer: “There’s no question in my mind that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important issue in dispute, and has generated a lot of the animosity towards us because of our unwavering support for Israel, which will remain in place.”

A letter of apology was sent to Prince Al Waleed by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, who apologised for Giuliani’s failure to recognise that the Saudi prince had the right to express his views on developments within the Arab world “which you know very well.” She added: “Many of us here in the United States have long been concerned about reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that reveal a pattern of excessive and often indiscriminate use of lethal force by Israeli security forces in situations where Palestinian demonstrators were unarmed and posed no threat of death or serious injury to the security forces or to others.” She also appealed to the prince to reconsider “assisting Americans who are in dire need right now (and) help improve the state of black America and build better lives.”

This is a golden opportunity for Prince Al Waleed to put his money to good use in America. For a start, he can establish a $10 million trust fund run by Arab Americans. The aim could be educational, offering scholarships to Arab American students, as well as helping educate Americans about Arab concerns, something that is sorely needed.