Can Horse-Trading Win the Saudis a Voice on Iraq?

In his office high above the sprawl of Riyadh, an influential Saudi official speaks with regret about his government's inability to influence the unfolding confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, he tells BusinessWeek, should be working closely with the U.S. to arrange a post-Saddam Iraq. But instead the Saudis are barely in the picture. "The problem is that we are not cooperating [enough] with the Americans," he notes.

As U.N. weapons inspectors prepare to head into Iraq on Nov. 18, the Saudi royal family is in a quandary over the region's impending conflict. On the one hand, the Saudis wouldn't mind seeing Saddam ousted if he fails to comply with the U.N. But the Saudis fear the consequences of an American invasion, both for the region and at home, where anger at U.S. support for Israel is white-hot and most Saudis oppose an attack on Baghdad. At the same time, the royal family doesn't want to see its already-frayed ties with the U.S. unravel completely. "The Saudis are trying to balance between keeping good relations with the West and a population that is angry and frustrated with U.S. policies," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

Above all, the Saudis want to avoid a war, which would make straddling competing interests even tougher. That's why Crown Prince Abdullah is urging Iraq to accommodate the U.N. inspectors. Thus Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal's public embrace of the Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri at an Arab Foreign Ministers' meeting in Cairo on Nov. 9 was a sign of support for Baghdad, and part of Riyadh's campaign to moderate Saddam's response. The big worry, says Turki al-Faisal, former chief of intelligence, is that "Saddam will screw things up." Iraq's leader, he adds, "is blind to logic."

If the Saudis decide they can't stop a war, they may well give more aid to the U.S. than is generally expected. The unanimous vote for the U.N. resolution on Iraq on Nov. 8, backed even by Syria, will make giving such aid easier. U.S. jet fighters regularly blast off from the Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh for the southern no-flight zone over Iraq. If the U.N. Security Council authorizes an attack on Iraq, the Saudis could allow the U.S. full use of its bases for sorties. But the Saudis might still want "a certain amount of obfuscation" about their role, the Western diplomat says.

Even if they pitch in, the Saudis fear the ripple effects of a military campaign. Al-Faisal warns that an invasion could be "catastrophic" and predicts an Iraqi breakup as a result. In this case, the Shiite Muslim majority in the south and the semi-independent Kurds in the north would seek greater status than they enjoyed under Saddam, whose base is Iraq's Sunni heartland. The Saudis worry that instability could lead to intervention by Turkey or Iran.

But it doesn't look like warning about the war's dangers will stop it. One possible course would be for the Saudis to give access to their bases in return for being brought into planning for the aftermath of the war. Some observers worry that the Saudis have left such discussions until too late. Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, editor of the Saudi-owned, London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat, recently blasted the Saudi decision to send a delegation of businessmen to Baghdad as a futile effort to appease public opinion. "A correct estimate of the future and preparations to face it are much more important than doing things to please angry critics," he wrote in the Jeddah-based Arab News on Nov. 10.

Few such voices, though, can be heard in the kingdom. Saudi unease with the crisis is understandable. But Riyadh's dilemma remains: Work with the Americans now, or get stuck later dealing with what they've brought to pass.

By Stanley Reed in Riyadh

Edited by Rose Brady

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