Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2001 / 4 Kislev, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Friendship and the House of Saud -- TO hear Prince Bandar tell it, Saudi Arabia is devoted to the United States.

"Our role," the Saudi ambassador said in a CNN interview some weeks ago, "is to stand solid and shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends, the people of the United States.... In 1990, when we needed your help, you came through for us. And it's our turn now to stand up with you."

That's the official line, the one the Saudis have spent a fortune promoting over the years. It is a theme the media routinely echo. "No Arab nation," Newsweek declared just two weeks ago, "has been as reliable a friend to America over such a long period of time as Saudi Arabia."

Is it true?

When terrorists slaughtered thousands of civilians in a horrific attack on Sept. 11, our friends the Saudis reacted with -- silence. Other governments welled up with shock, grief, and fury. Riyadh said nothing.

As it became clear that most of those who carried out the atrocities were citizens of Saudi Arabia and that the mastermind behind them was a member of a leading Saudi family, one might have expected the Saudis to express great anguish and heartache. One might have thought they would be anxious to cooperate closely with the United States in rooting out those responsible for the devastation.

But there were no words of anguish, and there was little cooperation. The US investigation had barely begun when Riyadh arranged a private jet to fly scores of its citizens -- including members of the bin Laden clan -- out of the United States. This meant, of course, that the FBI could not interview people who might have had valuable information about the hijackers.

That was only the beginning of the Saudis' unhelpfulness. When Washington asked for background information on the Sept. 11 terrorists, the Saudis stonewalled. While 94 airlines agreed to identify passengers on planes flying to the United States, Saudi Arabian Airlines refused. A month after the attacks, The New York Times reported that "Saudi Arabia has so far refused to freeze the assets of Osama bin Laden and his associates." Of particular concern was Riyadh's unwillingness to shut down the Islamic "charities" that are Al Qaeda's lifeline.

As American war plans took shape, the Saudis barred the use of their military bases for attacks against the Taliban. Britain's Tony Blair set off on a Mideast tour to build support for the war effort, but was denied entry to Saudi Arabia. And just days after the US bombardment of Afghanistan began, the Saudi interior minister denounced it. "This is killing innocent people," Prince Nayef scolded. "We are not at all happy with the situation."

These are our friends?

For years the United States has had an arrangement with Saudi Arabia's rulers: They would sell us oil and we would pretend not to notice that they were intolerant dictators who crushed dissent at home while nurturing some of the world's most most violent fanatics abroad. But now we are at war with those fanatics and the old bargain cannot continue.

It is time to face the truth about our Saudi "friends:" Their money, their diplomacy, their politics, and above all their Wahhabi strain of Islam -- extremist, intolerant, aggressive, and poisonously anti-Western -- made Sept. 11 possible. The Taliban and Al Qaeda represent not perversions of Wahhabism but its full flowering. That is why they had the support of so many Saudis -- and why the blood of the victims is on Saudi hands.

For years, the House of Saud has had it both ways, posing as a friend of America while spending lavishly to advance America-hating Islamist extremism around the world. When forced to choose between the two, they have generally kept faith with the extremists. In 1996, for example, Saudi authorities derailed the US investigation into the Khobar Towers terrorist bombing in Dharahn, which killed 19 American soldiers and maimed 372. The FBI was not allowed to examine the evidence or question suspects. When a US grand jury this year indicted 13 Saudis for the bombing, Riyadh refused to extradite them.

This is not how friends should behave. And absorbing such insults is not how a superpower should behave.

For years Washington has allowed Riyadh to dictate the terms of the US-Saudi relationship. Because the Saudis demanded that Saddam Hussein not be toppled, the Gulf War was aborted before victory had been achieved. But because Saddam wasn't destroyed, Saudi Arabia required continuing protection, so thousands of US troops remained inside its borders. That occupation by "infidel" Americans, in turn, fueled the rage of Osama bin Laden -- who used Saudi money and Saudi recruits to build up his army of terrorists and plot the murder of Americans. Our obsequiousness has cost us dearly.

Saudi Arabia and the United States, as Crown Prince Abdullah himself said last month, have come to a crossroads. Perhaps it is time they went their separate ways.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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