Attacks increase pressure on fragile ties between US and Saudi Arabia

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The suicide bombings in Riyadh, in which at least seven Americans died, were putting even more pressure on relations between the US and Saudi Arabia yesterday. Links were already bedevilled by claims that the world's pivotal oil producer was one of the prime breeding grounds of Islamic terrorism.

The attacks come at an especially delicate moment. The American occupying army is struggling to impose order in Iraq and Washington is preparing to withdraw the bulk of its military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia, where their presence had been a long-standing source of resentment.

On a brief stop at one of the devastated housing compounds yesterday, Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, said the bombings had "all the fingerprints of al- Qa'ida" – the organisation led by Osama bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, the FBI dispatched an assessment team to the Saudi capital. But there was no guarantee that it would not face the same subtle obstacles thrown in the way of investigators of similar attacks on US targets in the past, notably the 1996 truck bombing at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 Americans.

US officials complained that they were not allowed full access to suspects. The lack of co-operation raised suspicions – hotly denied by the Saudis – of complicity between elements of the Saudi state, its intelligence services in particular, and Islamic groups behind the attacks.

Yesterday's bombings were not a surprise to Washington. The State Department warned this month of possible al-Qa'ida attacks on US targets in the kingdom.

Though no group had claimed responsibility yesterday for the bombings, the four synchronised attacks, evidently timed to coincide with General Powell's arrival, bore every sign of an al-Qa'ida operation. "Obviously these facilities had been cased. The attacks were carefully planned and very well executed," General Powell said, adding that the attacks "will not deter us and the Saudis in our mutual effort to go after international terrorism".

In truth, the unstinting co-operation of Riyadh will be crucial, if relations between the two countries are not to suffer. The "infidel" American troops and businesses in Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam's most sacred places, have long been one of the main grievances of Bin Laden, in his efforts to stir up a holy war against the West.

Washington had considered the presence of its troops in the kingdom essential in protecting Saudi oilfields and supporting a friendly "moderate" government from its neighbours, Iran and Iraq.

Outwardly, diplomatic ties could hardly be closer. Indeed Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Riyadh's ambassador in Washington for two decades and a close friend of the Bush family, received the honour last year of an invitation to President George Bush's Texan ranch.

Riyadh also claims to be a close ally of America in the campaign against terrorism. But many officials in the US feel that Saudi Arabia is torn between its role as the world's largest oil producer and pressure on its ruling family from the kingdom's clergy.

These pressures, officials believe, have led Saudi rulers to cut a tacit deal with fundamentalists, turning a blind eye to terrorist links. The suspicions are strongest among neo-conservatives in their powerbases at the Pentagon and in the Vice- President's office.

A paper submitted last summer to the Defence Policy Board, an important advisory panel to Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, argued that Saudi Arabia was an enemy of the US. It urged the Bush administration to give Riyadh an ultimatum: cease support for terrorism or face seizure of oil fields, and financial assets in the US. The document was officially dismissed as the fantasising of one erratic analyst at the Rand Corporation. But it reflected a growing impatience in some quarters in Washington at what is seen as Saudi procrastination, and the kingdom's inability to address the root causes of terrorist sympathies.

In theory, the strains should be eased by the withdrawal of most American troops, as promised by Mr Rumsfeld during his recent visit to Riyadh. But yesterday's attacks were aimed at civilian targets, including the 40,000 US citizens who live and work in Saudi Arabia.

They suggest al-Qa'ida will not be easily persuaded. They are also a sign that, because of the invasion of Iraq, al-Qa'ida may have an even larger reservoir of Saudi sympathy on which to draw.

For some analysts, the latest bombings only underline how Saudi Arabia, strategically and economically crucial to the West, may be a time-bomb waiting to explode.

Society is caught in a tug of war between Islamic tradition and Western modernism. Corruption is rife, while unemployment is rising sharply among a youthful population as oil revenues stagnate.

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