Supposedly allied in close friendship with the United States, Saudi Arabia declined to allow America to use its airfields for President George Bush's "war on terrorism'' yesterday. It specifically forbade US bombers to take off for retaliatory strikes from the massive Prince Sultan airbase near the capital, Riyadh. The decision comes only a week after Lt-Gen Charles Wald, the head of air operations for US Central Command, moved his headquarters to the airbase from South Carolina.
With truly ambiguous courtesy, a Saudi official announced that "Saudi Arabia will not accept any infringement on its national sovereignty, but it fully backs action aimed at eradicating terrorism and its causes.'' Many thousands of Saudis – not least the "prime suspect" himself, Osama bin Laden – will ask how Saudi Arabia suddenly intends to protect its sovereignty when 4,500 US military personnel are still stationed in the kingdom and when American planes still use its airfields – including the Prince Sultan base – for bombing raids over southern Iraq. In any event, eradicating the "causes'' of the atrocities in New York and Washington are not President Bush's priority.
Off the record, the Saudis are saying they are worried about possible strikes on other Muslim states – presumably including Afghanistan – and that they want some power of decision over air operations, an idea that is not going to commend itself to Messrs Bush and Powell. In reality, however, Saudi authorities know that many thousands of Muslims in the kingdom – including, it is said, prominent ulema (religious teachers) and a number of Saudi princes – have voiced quiet support for Mr bin Laden's demand that the Americans pack up and leave Saudi Arabia.
The Americans will not be amused. More than half of the 19 hijackers who took over the four American airliners on 11 September appear to have been Saudi nationals – even those who used the identities of other Saudis – and Mr bin Laden is himself a Saudi, though long since deprived of citizenship. The Taliban, whom Washington now holds responsible for Mr bin Laden, were the theological creation of the Saudi "wahabi" Sunni sect, and – until sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan – a regular flight linked Riyadh and the south-western Afghan city of Jalalabad.
The kingdom's alliance with the US began more than half a century ago when President Franklin D Roosevelt invited King ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy in 1945. The king set up his desert tent on the deck of the American destroyer with seven sheep tied to the fantail to provide daily fresh meat. He was promised that the US would never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs. Three days later, Winston Churchill forfeited Britain's hitherto leading influence with the Saudis by declaring to the king that "if it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol, I must point out that my rule of life prescribes as an almost sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and – if need be – during all meals and in the intervals between them.''
These days, the Saudis might prefer a less forceful British prime minister to a US president whose nation so swiftly betrayed Roosevelt's promise. But it was King Fahd who invited half a million US forces into the kingdom after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – a "historical decision'' according to the king, a historical betrayal according to Mr bin Laden – and it is Crown Prince Abdullah's burden to support a continued US presence to deter further aggression from Iraq.
No such doubts assail President Saddam's victim, Kuwait. Although the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, only recently suffered a brain haemorrhage, the Kuwaiti government has been more than happy to invite the Americans – the liberators of 1991 – to send more armour and fighter-bombers to the emirate. Bahrain, cleansed of its sinister secret policemen and their British mentors, has also offered its facilities to the US; its Gulf fleet has for years been based in the Bahraini capital of Manama. The United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic relations with the Taliban at the weekend, a decision which may be followed by Saudi Arabia.
Yet it is not difficult to see the predicament of the Saudis and their neighbours. The real problem for Gulf Arabs is the vagueness of America's proposed military response to the mass murders in New York and Washington. President Bush's talk of a "crusade'' caused near heart attacks among the Saudi rulers while the idea of a "long war on terror'' has an unhappy ring for the emirs and sultans of the Gulf. They would much prefer their own dictatorial stability than the necessity of explaining to their own people why it is necessary to host another American bombing campaign against Muslim nations.
The Saudis are genuinely mystified about American plans. Do they intend to fire cruise missiles into Afghanistan, as President Bill Clinton did after the US embassy bombings in Africa? Is Iraq to be included in the list of nations to be punished for the World Trade Centre atrocities? Or the Hizbollah in Lebanon, who clearly have no connection with the crime but who are eagerly being fingered by the Israelis? The FBI were infuriated when they were refused permission by the Saudis to interrogate the men accused of bombing the Al-Khobar military barracks in which 24 US soldiers were killed. The Americans were still pleading for the right to talk to the three accused on the day they had their heads chopped off.
Last night, Saudi and US diplomats were dancing a very odd tango. The Saudis would make no official statement about their refusal to deny their bases to the Americans while the US embassy in Riyadh referred all questions to the Pentagon. In turn, the Pentagon told journalists to call the State Department – which declined to make any comment at all. In retrospect, the Saudis may look back with some nostalgia to the tough-talking, cigar-chomping, whisky-drinking British prime minister who made a last vain attempt to maintain his country's supremacy in the kingdom by sending King ibn Saud a veteran Rolls Royce – complete with a throne behind the steering wheel.Reuse content