Mixed Signals From Saudi Arabia

President Bush meets with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office. Sept, 20, 2001
By telephone Thursday, President Bush thanked the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for Saudi cooperation in the war on terrorism. In disclosing that call, the White House strongly denied reports of serious differences between the two countries.

But evidence suggests that the current conflict is straining the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Saudi Arabia has been a reluctant, and at times, uncooperative ally, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.

For starters, U.S. fighter jets attacking Afghanistan must launch from sea because the Saudi's won't allow them to use their air bases. The bases were used by U.S. jets to protect the Saudi's in the Gulf War, but are now limited to command and control operations.

"If we use a command and control center in Saudi Arabia, but we don't talk about it - the Saudi's are fine by it," says Middle East expert Fouad Ajami. "Where we run into trouble is where we ask the Saudi's to associate with us in broad daylight."

Increasingly wary of inflaming extremists, the Saudi monarchy has yet to cooperate fully with the investigation of the Sept. 11 hijacking suspects, 15 of whom were likely Saudi nationals.

Terrorism suspects have been arrested in over 40 countries since Sept. 11, but no such arrests have been announced so far in Saudi Arabia.

And the regime has done nothing to prevent so-called "charities" from funneling large sums of money to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, and other terrorists groups.

No assets have been frozen in the kingdom either for several Saudi citizens and a charity that President Bush said were connected to terrorist operations.

And more than six weeks after the attacks, the Saudi royal family, a friend to successive U.S. administrations, has yet to openly acknowledge any of its citizens could have been involved in the deadliest act of terrorism in history.

Although Washington dismisses suggestions of tensions, the current investigation underscores a complex relationship with a regime that controls vast oil supplies and protects Islam's holiest shrines.

"The president noted that he is very pleased with the kingdom's contributions to the efforts," Fleischer said.

There was no mention of Saudi Arabia's contributions to the investigation although Fleischer said reports of differences between the two countries were incorrect.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who has been acting as a spokesman on developments in the kingdom, told journalists recently that Saudi Arabia had not received convincing evidence of Saudi citizens' participation in the attacks.

"There were 400 people aboard the four planes and we find it strange that the focus is on Arabs, and Saudis in particular," he said on Oct. 15.

Richard Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, believes the Saudi government would never knowingly support bin Laden, because he is their single greatest threat -- intent on their overthrow for allowing an American military presence inside he Muslim holy land.

"I think the principal concern of the Saudi leadership is the survival of Saudi Arabia lead by the house of Saud," says Murphy.

The royal family's survival is not just in their best interest but possibly in America's, too. One alternative to the current monarchy might be a generation of bin Laden sympathizers that would control 25 percent of the world's oil.

Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the attack, of his citizenship in the early 1990s after he was caught smuggling weapons from Yemen.

Fifty-nine Saudis, including some of the hijackers, appear on an FBI list of 370 people and organizations wanted for questioning in connection with the attacks. But Prince Nayef said at a news conference recently that "we haven't been officially informed of any Saudi involvement." He would not say whether the kingdom had launched its own probe.

Some say however that the regime, in constant fear of Islamic opposition, may be quietly investigating on its own to avoid any appearance that it simply complies with Washington's wishes.

"I have no doubt that they're cooperating to some extent with the United States in terms of looking at money transfers or investigating previous suspects," said Samer Shehata, an Egyptian-born professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

Said Shehata, "If the U.S. pushes them too hard it will only make it easier for opposition elements, inside and outside Saudi Arabia, to take advantage of that, to become stronger, to denounce the Saudi government."

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