It is now widely acknowledged that what sparked the most devastating attack on the American mainland in history was the continued presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the Gulf War–which, in 1991, prompted the disaffection of Osama bin Laden, until then part of the Saudi political/business establishment. With US troops, warplanes and other military hardware stationed in all the gulf Arab monarchies, and the Pentagon’s Fifth Fleet headquartered in the island state of Bahrain, why does the United States need to maintain a military presence on Saudi soil?
It would be naïve to expect a straight answer from US authorities, so one has to make do with the explanations offered recently by unnamed Pentagon officials, especially the one “who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia” and who told the Washington Post in mid-January that the United States promised to withdraw its contingent from the Saudi kingdom “when the job is done.” As the Post reported, “Saudis interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait [in 1990-91], but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad.”
The official was referring to the written promise from President Bush Senior, secured by King Fahd before he invited US troops to his country, in August 1990, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. So, out goes the explanation dished up routinely by the State Department and the Pentagon for many years–that the troops and warplanes are based inside Saudi Arabia to monitor the US/UK-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq, implying that the discontinuation of this zone would end the Pentagon’s presence in the desert kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the logic even more explicit in a January 20 Fox-TV interview quoted in the International Herald Tribune: The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, he said, “might end only when the world turned into ‘the kind of place we dreamed of. They [US forces] serve a useful purpose there as a deterrent to Saddam Hussein, but beyond that as a symbol.'”
Fahd extracted Bush Senior’s promise in 1990 in order to overcome stiff opposition from ranking clerics, who provide legitimacy to the rule of the House of Saud. The presence of US troops under their own flag in Saudi Arabia violates a cardinal Islamic principle that the kingdom has enforced since its inception in 1932, treating all Saudi territory as a mosque, based on Mohammed’s deathbed injunction: “Let there be no two religions in Arabia.” Clearly King Fahd was apprehensive about US troops in his kingdom acting as an independent force to achieve their anti-Iraq objective without regard for its impact on Saudi interests or sovereignty. Twelve years on, he and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, find Washington trying to impose its interpretation of what “the job” entails and when it is “done.”
America’s insistence on imposing its will on Riyadh is fueling the anger many Saudis feel toward Washington, especially regarding its unquestioned support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates sympathy for Osama bin Laden. A secret survey in mid-October by the kingdom’s intelligence agency, Istikhabart, showed that 95 percent of educated Saudis in the 25-to-41 age group supported “bin Laden’s cause.” Given this sociopolitical fact, it seems unlikely that the regime in Riyadh can continue its tight military links with Washington. The writing is on the wall. “Since September 11 America has lost the Saudi people,” said Dr. Abdulrahman al-Zamil, chairman of the al-Zamil business group. “America tried to convince people that they are here to protect the [Saudi] regime, and that is total garbage. Their presence is a liability to the Saudi government.” The airing of such a view by an affluent businessman, who is also a member of the consultative council appointed by the monarch, could have happened only with the connivance of the royal family.
Perceiving widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in the kingdom, the top decision-makers in Riyadh may have decided to raise the previously taboo issue in public, if only to signal to their subjects that their views are being taken into account. However, along with their American counterparts, they face a dilemma: How can US military presence in the kingdom be curtailed or ended without appearing to reward bin Laden? There is no easy way out.