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Bush Visits Saudi Arabia Amid Changing Alliance

President Bush visits Saudi Arabia on Monday, a nation that has struggled to maintain good relations with Washington while also trying to rein in Islamic radicals at home.

The al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sparked a wave of animosity and suspicion toward Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for many of the hijackers. If anything, though, Saudis say the rocky road of the past five years has shown the durability of their long alliance with the U.S.

It is a relationship founded on oil and the Saudi commitment to seeing that vast Middle East reserves continue to flow to the energy-hungry West.

But that relationship has altered significantly in recent years. These days, China and India are more dependent on Saudi oil than the U.S., which has diversified its suppliers. At the same time, although most U.S. troops have been moved out of the kingdom, the security component of the relationship has moved to the forefront as Riyadh and Washington share intelligence and resources in the fight against Islamist militants.

It was the 2003 al-Qaida attacks in Saudi Arabia that helped change the American perception of the kingdom from an exporter of militants to a target of Islamist violence. Saudi officials say those attacks also turned the local population against al-Qaida.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said security forces have been able to thwart a series of attacks in recent years in part because of much more active assistance from the public.

"They have recognized that the al-Qaida ideology is an ideology to inflame terrorism rather than trying to set up a new approach for Muslim societies," he said.

Al-Turki also said communication in other areas remains poor. Last week, for instance, the national security adviser in the U.S.-backed government in Iraq announced that "hundreds" of Saudis had been arrested in Iraq on suspicion of militant activities and were ready to be returned to their homeland. Saudis learned about that announcement in the media, al-Turki said, because except for an occasional conference, the two security forces rarely communicate.

"We're surprised that sometimes a Saudi could be arrested in Iraq and then released again inside Iraq," he said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Saudis say, it was the invasion of Iraq that has had the most profound effect on U.S.-Saudi relations. Saleh al-Mani, dean of the college of law and political science at King Saud University, said the invasion and the way it was handled, led inevitably to the current crisis with Iran by removing Saddam Hussein and his Sunni bulwark against the regional ambitions of the Shiite leadership.

"The invasion of Iraq has really disturbed the balance of power in the region," al-Mani said. "So we have now a problem with Iran having so much influence in the region and in Iraq."

Many Saudis say they are baffled by U.S. policy toward Iran, but they are most worried about another military conflict on their doorstep. Al-Mani said the U.S. would be wise to let diplomacy and sanctions have their full effect, because Iranians appear to be getting fed up with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies.

"There is a strategic change going on in this part of the world, whereby Iran is really trying to play the big card," al-Mani said. "But they're playing the big card on the military level — and they're losing. It's costing them economically. We have one year left in Ahmadinejad's administration, so I think perhaps the next administration will be much more cooperative, like Khatami and so on."

Iran's relatively moderate former President Mohammad Khatami has been more vocal lately. Many American conservatives are pressing for aggressive action against the current leadership. Saudis hope that their relations with this American president, which began amid terrorism, war and Middle East turmoil doesn't end the same way.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.