25 January 2003

Dateline Riyadh: Stung by 9/11, Saudis turning their backs on U.S.

January 25, 2003
The Times of India

Dateline Riyadh
Stung by 9/11 response, Saudis turning backs on US


Riyadh: Hussein Al-Athel, secretary-general of the Riyadh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, has visited the US every year since Last year, like thousands of other influential Saudi citizens, he decided not to. “Why should I take the risk of being accused of some wrongdoing? They may even misunderstand my name. A tribal name like many of the 9/11 hijackers had can be shared by up to 250,000 Saudis, and then there are thousands of Alis and Mohammeds,” he said.

“There is a feeling here of not wanting to always prove you're innocent.”

A suspicious' name or the whim of the immigration authorities can lead to a Saudi visitor at a US airport being fingerprinted and photographed on arrival. “It's really quite random”, said a Saudi businessman.

“One prince that I know sailed through immigration. Another was taken aside and photographed like a criminal.”

With 15 of the 19 hijackers hailing from Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration seems keen to place obstacles in the way of Saudis visiting the US.

It put pressure on Canada to end its visa free entry for Saudi citizens and even got its southern neighbour, Mexico, to shut down its embassy in August 2002.

So obsessed is Washington with the idea that Al Qaida works on tribal lines that it has introduced a form where visa seekers must spell out the full details of their family, clan and tribal affiliations.

“For us Saudis, that can be complicated,” joked Farooq Luqman, editor of the Jeddah-based daily, Malayalam News, and an Indophile of long standing. “It's much better to just be a Malhotra!”

A senior Saudi official who asked not to be named said Washington's response to 9/11 has undermined an alliance that provided stability to the entire region.

“We have had a long relationship with the US for so many years and look how they treat us now,” he said. Wallahi (By God), I will never visit the US again unless I am required to do so for my work,” the editor of a top-circulating Arabic daily declared at a dinner in a smart restaurant on Jeddah's corniche. “We have all studied in the US and loved that country. But this is the feeling we have today.”

“The way the US is treating Saudis shows that civilised, democratic values are not deep-rooted there,” a businessman said. “Once they are finished with the foreigners, they will start targeting their own people”.

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