Skip to comments.Saudis Plan to End U.S. Presence
Posted on 02/08/2003 11:09:26 AM PST by GeneD
WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 Saudi Arabia's leaders have made far-reaching decisions to prepare for an era of military disengagement from the United States, to enact what Saudi officials call the first significant democratic reforms at home, and to rein in the conservative clergy that has shared power in the kingdom.
Senior members of the royal family say the decisions, reached in the past month, are the result of a continuing debate over Saudi Arabia's future and have not yet been publicly announced. But these princes say Crown Prince Abdullah will ask President Bush to withdraw all American armed forces from the kingdom as soon as the campaign to disarm Iraq has concluded. A spokesman for the royal family said he could not comment.
Pentagon officials asked about the Saudi moves said they had not heard of any plan so specific as a complete American withdrawal. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers involved were Saudis, members of both parties in Congress have urged broad reform in the conservative kingdom.
Until Abdullah actually issues the decrees, it remains to be seen whether he will be the first son of Saudi Arabia's modern unifier, King Abdul Aziz, to undertake significant political change.
The presence of foreign especially American forces since the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91 has been a contentious issue in Saudi Arabia and has spurred the terrorism of Osama bin Laden, the now disowned scion of one of the kingdom's wealthiest families, and his followers in Al Qaeda.
Saudi officials said the departure of American soldiers would set the stage for an announcement that Saudis but probably not women, at least initially would begin electing representatives to provincial assemblies and then to a national assembly, Saudi officials said.
The goal would be the gradual expansion, over six years, of democratic writ until a fully democratic national assembly emerged, a senior official said.
The debate over the need for reform is described by Saudi royal family members as part of the post-Sept. 11 reckoning to head off foreign and domestic pressures that threaten the royal family and its dominion over the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.
As the United States prepares for what could be a long military occupation of Iraq, the Saudi royal family does not want to appear as if it were pressured into reform, according to Saudis familiar with the debate. To be seen as acting under American sway might undermine the monarchy's credibility before a population that is increasingly young, unemployed, pious and anti-American.
Still, the departure of all American military forces from Saudi Arabia would be a potentially troubling milestone in the history of the relationship that dates to World War II.
Since the Persian Gulf war, when the United States dispatched 500,000 troops to the Saudi desert, a security pact has endured to confront and contain Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Thousands of American engineers have built supply depots, air bases and a state of the art air operations headquarters south of Riyadh that were intended to join the two countries in long-lasting military collaboration.
Even if American troops do leave, Saudi and American officials said, security cooperation would likely continue, and they noted that the soldiers could return if the Saudi rulers faced a new threat.
The Saudi reform debate, according to one participant, has taken place in an atmosphere of opposition from senior princes, including Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the minister of interior, and to a lesser extent, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the minister of defense.
Prince Sultan, who family members say has been privately designated as the next crown prince by Abdullah, was described by a family member as "moderately against it or, stating it another way, very reluctantly for it."
One royal family member said that despite opposing views, senior princes "will support the decisions of Prince Abdullah when he makes them" because "the royal family will always stick together, especially in times of crisis."
The reported decisions have enthusiastic support from Saudi Arabia's influential business community, and from the second tier of senior princes in their 50's and 60's who have had the most contact with the West. Among those family members are Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Princeton-educated foreign minister, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the defense minister and a former F-15 fighter pilot who has been ambassador to the United States since 1983.
For now, a senior prince said, Crown Prince Abdullah, the day-to-day ruler since King Fahd fell ill in 1995, has overcome resistance with the admonition, "Isn't it better if I do this now before I have to do it later?"
The senior prince added, "After the last shot is fired in Iraq, it will be a good time to say that we have won, and that we both agree there is no longer any need for American forces." He continued, "But the real politics of this is to win the hearts and minds of a majority of the people" in Saudi Arabia. "That is the way to really fight terrorism and the bad guys."
Another senior prince added, "The fact is, reform is imperative and not a choice, so is participatory government." There will always be opponents to reform, this prince said, however the family is capable of facing opposition "with resolve, but with understanding for the other view."
If he issues the decrees, Abdullah will have to contend with those religious authorities who will resist reforms and a change in the fundamentalist contract that has empowered a clergy who practice one of Islam's most conservative interpretations, based on the teachings of Sheik Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab and sometimes referred to as Wahhabism.
American specialists on Saudi Arabia said it appeared that Abdullah was seeking a national consensus to maneuver around the most conservative elements of the clergy by appealing to the influential Saudi business establishment, the military and tribal leaders. The aim, Saudi officials said, is to create an Islamic parliament that would be able to wrest some control over social policy even basic questions like whether women can drive away from the puritanical religious establishment.
"If this turns out to be solid," said Richard N. Murphy, a leading Arabist who served as President Reagan's assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, "it is a dramatic demonstration of leadership, which people have been worried about" since Abdullah took over day-to-day rule from King Fahd. "It also shows that they are capable of generating movement from within, which is where it had to come from if they are going to survive as a ruling family," Mr. Murphy added.
One royal family member said there was a great deal of frustration among younger princes who feel that the older generation, most in their 70's and 80's, have been unwilling to take on the religious establishment.
"There is nothing in the Koran that says that women cannot drive," one prince said. "But we never tested the theory that women could drive," he added, explaining that the royal family simply subordinated itself to clerical rulings because that was the historical bargain under which the House of Saud came to power.
"As it stands now, one religious leader can veto anything that you want to do," one prince said. "Eventually, we became the culprits under this system," the prince added. "And now, we have exhausted every inch of that coalition" with religious leaders. "It is time to move on to the next generation."
The last time Saudi Arabia purged itself of foreign military forces was 1963, when the late King Faisal ordered the Strategic Air Command squadron of nuclear-armed bombers to evacuate the base they had maintained at Dhahran since the 1950's.
The reason at that time was a streak of Arab nationalism coursing through the region with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, said David E. Long, a longtime State Department specialist on the Saudis. "Our presence in a military base became a liability" for the Saudis, he said, "and we were asked to leave."
Saudi Arabia's dalliance with democratic process also dates to the early 1960's. King Faisal told President John F. Kennedy that he would create an assembly whose appointed deputies would advise the throne, but not make laws. But nothing came of the proposal until 1992, when King Fahd finally carried it out after the Persian Gulf war.
Whether Abdullah can push through the deeper change now apparently envisioned is unclear. The decision by some family members to air the debate seemed in part intended to nudge the Saudi leader forward.
"Doing political reform in Saudi Arabia is like publishing the Kama Sutra in the Victorian Age," said one royal family member, referring to the Hindu encyclopedia of erotica. But, he added, "The changes that Abdullah is doing show that he is willing to proceed with only a slim majority of religious support" and a significant amount of opposition.
In doing so, Abdullah has concluded that he will need to put distance between himself and the United States.
"I think they will step away from us, and I think it is healthy for both sides," Mr. Long said. "The median age in Saudi Arabia is now 15, and within this demography, there is an ideological justification for getting mad at American troops on your soil."
"But over and over again, we have given them the umbrella of our security, and our interest in them is that they own one quarter of the world's oil and can export a higher percentage of it than anyone else," Mr. Long said. "That has created a very strong relationship that is under a lot of strain, but I think it will survive."
Should this happen, I predict the US will be involved in a military conflict against the Saudi's, within 5-10 years!
But, but, but
I was told that our presence in Iraq "would destabilize the region!"
I hope this plan is implemented, although I can't imagine the clerics supporting it. It would end their religious tyranny.
Therin lies the problem. The house of Saud has allowed extremely narrow minded, cruel, bloodthirsty clerics far too much power for far too long. I sincerely hope that Saudi DOES adopt a form of representative government for it's people, but the attempt to move into the 18th century may have come too late.
I predict we'll have so much propositioned equipment around some nice new Iraqi airfields and ports that any conflict would be over in a heartbeat.
The Saudi family has a pretty good grip on it's military. Where they [military] falls on this issue is all that matters. If they agree with purging the Wahillbillies from influence then I dont see any reason for us to become engaged militarily.
If the Saudi military sides with the clerics...then, I'd agree with you.
We'll see...eitherway...anything is better than the status quo.
If the military sides with the clerics...then we get to wipe the clerics from the table [by force].
If the Military stays loyal to the Saud's then all is well [relatively speaking].
I think we'd all agree on one thing where the middle east is concerned..."change is good".
If it developes into extremist change...then we are big steps closer to taking out the extremists [as long as GW is calling the shots].
|I dont mind this plan...as presented...at all.
I don't either. The more they move away from despotism and rule by 13th-century theocrats, the better off we'll all be. We don't need the military bases on their territory anyway, and having us pack up and leave voluntarily when asked sends a useful signal.
The Islamics you were talking to were terrorist sympathizers - or maybe terrorists. King Fahd and especially King Abdullah are Muslims...but not extremist Islamists which is what the terrorists are.
Personally, I'm wondering if this announcement is the Saudi reaction to the veiled threat coming from the extremists protesting their embassy (in the UK) the other day. Considering how many of the bad guys there ARE in Saudi, that was probably no idle threat and appears to have made the Saudi royal family nervous.