Saudi Arabia would not usually engage in public squabbling with the US, with which it has a ‘strategic alliance’, and Washington would not usually humiliate one of its most valuable and dependable proxies in the Middle East. But the Palestinian intifada has galvanized Muslim public opinion into open hatred of Israel and its superpower ‘protector’, and few Arab leaders can risk being seen to be kowtowing to Uncle Sam. Hence the unprecedented public quarrel between the two over who should host the trial of defendants accused of the 1996 bombing of Khobar towers complex in the east of the kingdom, in which 19 US servicemen were killed and nearly 400 were injured.
The dispute came to a head on June 21, when the US federal grand jury unexpectedly indicted 13 Saudis and one Lebanese in connection with the bombing, although 11 of them were held in a Saudi prison and waiting to appear before a Saudi court. The indictment further embarrassed Riyadh by claiming that the attack was inspired and supported and supervised by “elements of the Iranian government”.
The 46-count indictment names nine individuals charged with the use of weapons of mass destruction, bombing and murder, while five others faced conspiracy charges. All are said to be members of Hizbullah, 13 of them Saudi nationals and the other a Lebanese. The indictment was announced by US attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI director Louis Freeh. Ashcroft also said that the attack was “inspired, supported and supervised” by elements of the Iranian government, but no Iranian was named either by him or in the indictment. Ashcroft, however, added menacingly: “We will continue to bring additional charges as appropriate.”
The Saudis were furious. Prince Sultan ibn Abdul-Aziz, Saudi defence minister, said that the US had no legal right to issue its indictments, while prince Nayef ibn Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister who is head of the government’s investigation, was even more emphatic, accusing the US authorities of failing to honour their pledge to cooperate with Saudi investigators. Nayef said on July 1 that 11 of the 13 Saudis charged by the US were in prison in the kingdom, and that the whereabouts of the two remaining suspects — Ahmed Mughassil and Ali Houri — were unknown. He also said that the fourteenth man, a Lebanese charged with building the bomb, was also at large.
Asked whether the kingdom would allow any of the suspects it was holding to be extradited to the US, Nayef replied emphatically: “No. Never. Impossible. We have nothing whatever to do with the US court, and we are concerned with what has been said or what is going to be decided by the US.”
Nayef then accused the US of reneging on their promise to track down the two Saudi suspects on the run. “The US promised us to help in searching for them and in arresting them and handing them to the US, as they have connections with some countries,” he said. “We have seen nothing from what we have been promised in this issue, nor have we been informed on what they have done, despite their promise to cooperate with us.”
The Saudi interior minister also made it clear that the announcement of the indictment took him by surprise, saying that Louis Freeh, then FBI director, had said nothing about it during their meeting last May, only a month before the indictments by the US federal grand jury.
On the issue of Iran’s involvement the minister was not quite so emphatic, but he said that no country had been identified as having had a hand in the bombing and the kingdom was not going to blame anyone without conclusive evidence. “We can never point a finger of accusation at any side until we are sure they are involved,” he said, “and this is something we are not sure about yet.” This may not be a denial of Iran’s responsibility, but it is a criticism of Washington’s readiness to jump to conclusions and a refusal on the part of Riyadh to join its efforts to implicate Tehran.
Saudi public criticism of Washington and its refusal to implicate Tehran have been attributed to worsening relations between the kingdom and the US since the Palestinian intifada, and to improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent years. The two countries now have a security pact, which prince Nayef himself signed for the kingdom in April.
In the early years of the Islamic revolution, Tehran often castigated the Saudi government for allowing US troops into the sites of Islam’s holiest places, expressing its commitment to drive them out of the region. Now it still strongly criticises the presence of the troops in the Gulf but it denies, equally strongly, any involvement in the Khobar bombing or in any other violent effort to eject them. For Washington, tarring Iran with the brush of ‘terrorism’ and casting it in the role of a rogue state suits US strategic interests in the Middle East, particularly its military presence and operations in the Gulf region, as well as president George W Bush’s missile programme, which is justified on the grounds that the US needs to protect itself against attacks by ‘rogue states’.
The latest sign of Washington’s unremitting hostility toward Islamic Iran came in the Bush administration’s review of US assistance to Russia, which makes the continuation of such aid conditional on Moscow severing its military and technological ties with Tehran. Sources quoted in the International Herald Tribune (July 17) said that in order to maintain US favour, “Russia would have to demonstrate a readiness to make a financial and political commitment to stopping the spread of unconventional weapons and its sale of nuclear and other military-related expertise and technology to Iran and other countries unfriendly to the US.”
But Saudi leaders are more preoccupied with distancing themselves from Uncle Sam to avoid any adverse fall-out from the Palestinian intifada. Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz’s recent trip to Arab and European capitals was hailed in the Saudi press as an attempt to drum up support for the intifada. He visited Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Germany, Sweden and France. His reported refusal to accept an invitation to the White House at the end of June was also designed to create a similar impression; the official line is that Riyadh is furious with the US for its failure to restrain Israel. Bush is reported to have telephoned Abdullah directly to discuss the issue.
Uncle Sam, however, while irritated, is no doubt still confident that the House of Saud – their trusted agents for many years– have no one else to turn to for protection, and that their rebellion is temporary and half-hearted. If the Saudis really wanted to help the intifada, they could use their oil as a bargaining lever, and could persuade other Arab countries to do likewise. Of course, neither Saudi Arabia nor any other Arab state has the freedom to do this. It also suits Washington to make sure that its Arab allies are not hurt by the intifada by letting them play this charade and thereby control public opinion.