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[casi] Bush takes Saddam's place as big threat to Saudis

>From the Financial Times

Bush takes Saddam's place as big threat to Saudis

By Roula Khalaf
Published: October 21 2002 5:00 | Last Updated: October 21 2002 5:00

A decade ago Saddam Hussein was the villain Saudis feared. These days, the
Iraqi strongman can find in the kingdom the most unlikely allies.

"In 1990 Saddam was wrong in invading Kuwait, now the US would be wrong in
invading Iraq," says Abdallah, an economics student. Sitting in a café in central
Riyadh, the young man says Saudis have no sympathy for Mr Hussein but even less
tolerance for US policies.

Such perceptions pose a serious dilemma for the Saudi royal family, whose
deteriorating relations with the US appear to have left it confused about
Washington's plans.

Eager to stem tensions with the US, it is also under pressure at home not to
provide any assistance to a US military campaign.

"Everyone hates Saddam Hussein but all Arab and Muslim regimes would be
acceptable if the alternative is to welcome the American army to the area," says
Mohsen al-Awaji, an Islamist critic of the Saudi regime. He warns this could lead
to more violence.

Last week, Prince Sultan, the defence minister, insisted the US would receive
no help from the kingdom in military action, appearing to backtrack on earlier
government comments that suggested a UN resolution authorising force could lead to
permission for the US to use Saudi bases.

"They will hope to get away with saying the least possible and doing the least
possible," says a western diplomat in Riyadh.

If and when stability returns to Iraq in a post-Hussein era, the presence of
5,000 US troops on Saudi soil will no longer be necessary. An easing of the
military presence would be a popular move, lessening pressure on the royal family.

But it is also likely to alter the basis of the alliance with the US, which
has rested virtually solely on oil and security.

The result, say analysts, is that the Saudi regime will be pressed by the
outside world, including the US, to implement social and political reforms, issues
long ignored by the west but now seen as breeding the type of extremists that
executed the September 11 terrorist attacks.

That is not necessarily the immediate concern of many ordinary Saudis. They
see the possible US military action to topple the Baghdad regime through the prism
of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the struggle that consumes the region.

Echoing often-heard comments in the Saudi capital, Abdallah insists that the
Iraq crisis has little to do with disarming Iraq.

"If that was the case, why not talk about Israel's weapons and its
non-compliance with UN resolutions?" he asks. "The crisis is about the US waving a
stick and after it is done with Iraq it will force everyone in the region to bow
to its demands and it would hit any country that opposes it."

In a region where hostility towards Washington and its support for Israel spur
many conspiracy theories, the US's stated motives for military action fail to

War is seen as the first step towards a new US-imposed order for the region.

A university professor at the Riyadh café talks of the US "wanting to
re-arrange the cards in the region". He said: "There could be a break-up of Iraq,
a puppet regime installed and this could lead to the break-up of other countries -
even the Saudis could be affected."

That US intentions might be to spread democracy, in Iraq and elsewhere, are
dismissed out of hand.

"You don't impose democracy through an international dictatorship," says the
university professor.

Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a Saudi political analyst and research fellow at the
Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, says regional mistrust of US
intentions is the pre-occupation of ordinary Saudis. "People are asking what next
[after Iraq] as a result of this mistrust."

Analysts and diplomats say the Saudi government's stance on the Iraq crisis is
driven not only by the lack of any perceived immediate threat from Baghdad but
also by worries about the aftermath of regime change in Iraq.

Its worries extend as far as thinking whether a post-Hussein Iraq might take
over from Saudi Arabia as the principal regional ally of the US.

Pressure from the west is also coming in other areas. Saudi Arabia is expected
to step forward to make up any shortfall in oil production in the event of war,
thereby helping to stabilise markets. Whether the US will be able quietly to use a
vital air command and control centre near Riyadh is uncertain but Washington is
making alternative plans in any case.

An increase in Iraqi oil production, raising it to its previous 3m barrels per
day, could bring pressure on the Saudis to reduce their own output, which had been
stepped up to substitute for the Iraqi decline.

Responding to pressure, however, for producing oil or for reforms to the
state, could bring the regime in direct confrontation with the powerful
conservative establishment that considers any change as a western assault on its
austere interpretation of Islam.

"The US will legitimise its interference on social issues but the
fundamentalists too will use the US pressure to legitimise their opposition to
change," says Mr al-Hattlan.

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002.

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