22 January 2003

Dateline Riyadh: In Arab heartland, no appetite for US war on Iraq

22 January 2003
The Times of India

Dateline Riyadh
In Arab heartland, no appetite for US war on Iraq


RIYADH: As the build-up of US troops in and around Iraq continues relentlessly and the region waits uneasily for the inevitable, it is clear that Saudi Arabia wants no part in any war against its Arab neighbour.

Saudi Arabia was once considered Washington's most dependable ally, but public opinion here is strongly ranged against the idea of an American attack.

Even members of the ruling elite are emphatic that if and when Iraq is invaded, US forces should not be allowed to use Saudi territory or even airspace for their operations.

"We are very firm that our stand is against war," said Badr Korayme, a ranking member of the Majlis-e-Shoura, the nominated body that is often described as the kingdom's parliament. "We are for change in Iraq provided it is from within. No external attempt to change the regime there is acceptable. Hence, we have very clearly told the US our territories cannot be used against Iraq in any way."

Korayme said that Riyadh would not even allow US bombers from Diego Garcia to overfly Saudi airspace on their way to Iraq.

A senior Saudi economic official, who did not wish to be identified, said that the situation today was "totally different" from the Kuwait crisis of 1991 when Riyadh backed Washington.

"This war is not about Saddam", he said. "After Iraq, the US will turn to Iran. It is all about oil. Wallahi (By God), I worry about the future of Saudi Arabia. You even have people in Washington who talk about the break-up of my country... After 10 years, everything will be against Saudi Arabia. That is why we are concerned, we have to take care of stability in our region."

Saudi apprehensions are largely fuelled by the manner in which the US seems to have turned against the kingdom in the aftermath of 9/11. Stringent visa restrictions - including the finger-printing of many Saudi male visitors to the US - as well as the suspicion that the strategic map of the entire region is somehow being redrawn have rung alarm bells within the Americanised elite.

The leaked Rand Corporation report presented by Laurent Murawiec to a Pentagon panel last August envisaging the "targeting of Saudi oil and financial assets abroad" is seen by Saudis as an augury of the tough times that lie ahead.

Officially, therefore, the normally reticent Saudi government has staked out a fairly rigid public position on the question of a war against Iraq.

Crown Prince Abdullah has said that even if the United Nations were to approve the US plans, diplomacy must be given time to work. Other ministers have said that Riyadh would deny all military and logistics facilities, including overflight rights.

On Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal will travel to Ankara for a six-nation meeting called by Turkey to explore ways of averting war. Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iran will also participate in the meet.

Though a number of Riyadh-based Western military attaches told Times News Network that the Ankara meeting and the Saudi stand were mere "posturing", it does seem as if this public display of opposition to the US approach has worked to limit Washington's options.

In the absence of explicit authorisation from the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia and possibly even Turkey would find it difficult to go along with any invasion of Iraq.

Militarily, this means that were the US and Britain to go it alone, the only guaranteed frontage they would have access to for a ground invasion would be the 240-km Kuwaiti border with Iraq. And for that, military experts felt, the US still needed to augment its already fearsome presence in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the Persian Gulf.

The alternative would be to push for explicit UN authorisation, something that would be difficult to secure in the absence of a dramatically adverse report by the UN weapons inspectors on January 27.

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