Warnings from Arab leaders to “think before you bomb” and Riyadh’s refusal to allow Washington to launch air strikes against Afghanistan from Saudi bases seem to have forced the administration of President George W Bush to adopt a cautious strategy for dealing with Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks on New York and Washington.
The immediate US response was to reinforce its air defences in the Gulf and proclaim an all-out “crusade against terror.” Hard-line Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly called for “ending states who [sic] sponsor terrorism.” Iraq is assumed to top Wolfowitz’s list of such states, but Iran, Syria and Libya are also potential targets.
Without consulting Saudi Arabia, Washington sent the head of the US Central Command, Lt General Charles Wald, to the Prince Sultan Airbase, 100 kilometres south of Riyadh, and announced that the air war would be conducted from there. Riyadh responded, calling the move an “infringement of [its] national sovereignty” since the kingdom had decided following the 1991 Gulf War that its bases could be used solely for self- defence and only if it were attacked.
Fearing a popular domestic backlash from its own citizens, a section of whom oppose the stationing of US forces in the country, Riyadh said “No” to the US dictate. This seems to have caused the Bush administration to revise its assault plan and transfer the theatre of operations from the Middle East to Central Asia.
Washington was also obliged to focus on Bin Laden and to postpone a broader campaign that might target the Iraqi regime. Riyadh joined other Arab capitals in calling for a multilateral effort rather than a unilateral US offensive so that the Arabs might have some influence in deciding the scope of military action and the choice of targets. Crown Prince Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told the oil-obsessed White House that to earn Arab backing it has to press Israel to end its war of attrition against the Palestinians and move forward with the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Apparently the firm positions adopted by the Saudis and other Arab allies altered the balance of forces within the Bush administration, giving the moderates, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, a temporary advantage over the hawks in the Pentagon. As a result, Washington seems to be moving towards a carefully calculated response to the 11 September terrorist operation.
In spite of the dramatic changes in its strategy, the Bush administration continued to exert pressure on Riyadh over the use of Saudi bases. The US was clearly worried about a domino effect from the Saudi refusal. And the US was right to be concerned; both Bahrain and Kuwait have refused to allow the US use of their bases.
On 28 September, however, The Washington Post and Western news agencies reported that the kingdom had agreed to permit the US use of its bases for launching offensives. Forty- eight hours later, Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan dismissed these reports as “nonsense.” “We will not accept the presence in our country of a single soldier at war with Muslims or Arabs,” he stated. He not only denied use of the bases but also implied that US forces could be asked to depart from the kingdom if Bush wages “war on terror” by attacking Muslims and Arabs.
The Saudi daily Okaz, which published Sultan’s statement, said that transit rights through Saudi airspace would be the kingdom’s sole contribution to the military aspect of the anti- terrorism campaign. Prince Sultan’s ruling was definitive. The fact that the terse statement came from him personally was highly significant.
Prince Sultan is a full brother of King Fahd and second in line to the throne as well as defence minister. The Prince Sultan base, which hosts 5,000 US troops and airmen, is his pet project. Sultan is also the second in seniority amongst the “Sudeiri seven,” the seven sons of King Abdel-Aziz and Hassa Al- Sudeiri, the most pro-US faction in the House of Saud.
Saudi Arabia, Washington’s oldest and closest Arab ally, has adopted a much more cautious approach to the second Bush administration’s coalition-building than it did when the senior George Bush put together the alliance against Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The main reason for Saudi caution is widespread anti-US sentiments in the kingdom caused by US bias towards Israel, Washington’s insistence on maintaining the punitive sanctions regime which has devastated Iraq and the permanent presence of US troops on Saudi soil.
Bin Laden is popular with some Saudis. Mai Yamani, the anthropologist daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Zaki Yamani, says that many Saudis “think he [Bin Laden] is the only person who stands against the hegemony of the US.” Riyadh must also be deeply concerned because at least 10 of the 19 suspects in the attacks on the US are presumed to have been Saudis.
Saudi Arabia attempted to placate Washington for denying it use of the bases by cutting ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban. The Saudi move amounted to total repudiation of the Taliban — a major ideological and political sacrifice for Riyadh.
The ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Taliban adhere to the teachings of the Wahabi sect which brought the House of Saud to power in the 1920s. Since Saudi Arabia is recognised by Muslims as the “guardian” of Islam’s two holiest sites at Mecca and Medina, Riyadh’s repudiation is tantamount to “excommunication” for the Taliban. Afghans who wish to perform the hajj now have to obtain visas from outside their country.
Saudi strategists also see an assault on the Taliban as prejudicial to their country’s interests. The movement is Riyadh’s main asset in the struggle of control for Afghanistan being waged by Sunni Pakistan and Shiite Iran, which might benefit, if a political vacuum is created in Afghanistan.
Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.