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Why Saudi Arabia is outraged
By Hooman Peimani

A week after the release of a 900-page United States congressional report regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W Bush rejected on Wednesday a request from Saudi Arabia to declassify part of it that allegedly links the Saudi government to the terrorist act. The refusal has outraged that government, because it stands publicly accused of terrorism while the evidence for the claim remains unavailable, and therefore, unverifiable. Apart from Riyadh being unable to clear its name, the refusal sets a precedent for unsubstantiated accusations to be leveled against the Saudi government, possibly to serve certain political purposes under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The current conflict between the Saudi government and its US counterpart began last week when the US Congress released the congressional report with a chapter on Saudi Arabia. It raised suspicions about possible links between some individuals working for the Saudi government and some of the Saudi nationals involved in al-Qaeda's terrorism on September 11. However, the report's 28-page chapter on alleged Saudi government financing of the terrorists was not made public, although the allegations were. What angered the Saudis was the report's heavy accusation of their government's complicity in the terrorist attacks without providing any verifiable proof and, thus, without giving them a chance to respond to the accusations.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal visited Washington on Wednesday to ask officially for the chapter's declassification as requested in a submitted letter of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia while filling for his ill brother, King Fahd. The Saudis made the request on the ground of their need to respond to the accusations and thereby clear their name. Reportedly, the Bush administration announced its decision not to declassify the chapter before the arranged meeting between the Saudi official and the US president.

Bush turned down the request on the ground that it would undermine an investigation into the terrorist attacks. "It makes no sense to declassify when we've got an ongoing investigation," he said, adding, "That could jeopardize that investigation." Bush also implicitly rejected the chapter's declassification indefinitely by questioning the wisdom of doing so as long as the open-ended "war on terror" continued. Thus, "it made no sense to declassify during the war on terror, because it would help the enemy if they knew our sources and methods".

Certain senators, including pro-administration Republicans who are privy to the content of the entire congressional report, including its classified chapter, have rejected the validity of the president's reasoning. For example, Republican Senator Richard Shelby has been quoted as saying that "90-95 percent of [the classified chapter] would not compromise, in my judgment, anything in national security".

Leaving no opportunity for the Saudis to defend themselves against the public charge of being accomplices to the al-Qaeda terrorists, Bush's refusal provoked a furious reply from the Saudi foreign minister after meeting with the president. Seeking to avoid escalation of the conflict, he diplomatically expressed his understanding of the president's reasoning. However, he also conveyed his government's anger at the refusal and at the way the US government treated its long-term Persian Gulf ally. Accordingly, "It is an outrage to any sense of fairness that 28 blank pages are now considered substantial evidence to proclaim the guilt of a country that has been a true friend and partner to the United States for over 60 years." Furthermore, he complained that these days "everyone is having a field day casting aspersions about Saudi Arabia".

Rejecting his government's involvement in the terrorist attacks, he stated the latter's willingness to cooperate with any US investigation. For that matter, he announced that government's agreement to let agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interview a Saudi national, Omar al-Bayoumi, whose name had been released as a potential link between al-Qaeda and the Saudi government. US security officials have not asked for his extradition, nor have they laid any charge against him. As reported, the FBI only wants to interview al-Bayoumi, a Saudi "civil aviation authority worker" who resides in Jiddah. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, British authorities reportedly detained and interviewed him while he was in Britain but released him without pressing any charge.

While expressing his country's full cooperation with any US investigation, Prince Saud stressed that the Saudis had "nothing to hide". He also added, "We do not seek, nor do we need, to be shielded." Perhaps that statement aimed to reject speculation on the part of some US politicians, such as Senator Bob Graham, who attributed Bush's refusal to an effort to protect the Saudi government. Graham, a Democratic candidate for the 2004 presidential elections, reacted to the refusal by implicitly identifying the Saudi government as an accessory to the terrorist attacks and accusing Bush of covering that up. "The White House has again today decided it is more important to deny the people of America the opportunity to know what happened before and after [September] 11 in terms of involvement of foreign governments than it is to open the record for all to see," asserted the senator.

In an interview on the same day, Prince Saud al-Faisal rejected any complicity of his government in the al-Qaeda attacks and reminded the US that his country had also been targeted by al-Qaeda. He also referred to its counter-al-Qaeda efforts since September 2001. "We have questioned thousands," said the Saudi foreign minister, "we have arrested 500 and we have stopped attacks before they occurred in Saudi Arabia." He then signified that his government's counter-terrorist cooperation with the US now seemed to be forgotten, stressing that "we have provided information that stopped attacks before they occurred in the United States also".

Against this background, the US congressional report seems to be adding insult to Saudi Arabia's injury. Since September 11 that country has been a target of Washington hawks' proposals for regime change as part of a plan to reshape the entire Middle East. Regardless of his intention, Bush's refusal to declassify the mentioned chapter will only create grounds for future leveling of unverifiable charges against Saudi Arabia, which could prepare US public opinion for a future regime change under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Within this context, the refusal could serve as a first step toward "dealing" with an old US ally, which the hawks consider as a strategically important state with uncertain future stability. Saudi Arabia's refusal to let the United States use its bases in a major way in their war on Iraq has probably qualified it as an "emerging rogue state" that Washington can afford to alienate now that it has access to oil-rich Iraq.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in International Relations.

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