Saudis caught between friend and foe
By Mushahid Hussain
ISLAMABAD - 3 Dec: - Ever since the summer, when Iraq emerged as the next target in the US-led war on terror, a sporadic media campaign has been launched against Saudi Arabia. The initial expression of US ire over the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudi nationals has now been transformed into a more systematic assault on Saudi Arabia, including its royal family.
This assault has been aided by the close nexus between the media and the political establishment in the United States, probably the coziest bond in any democratic country.
The media is used effectively to promote perceptions before these are translated into policy. Media coverage helps in garnering and preparing public opinion for what is to come. The media thus reflects and shapes policy in a significant and intelligent manner.
The example of Pakistan is instructive. Before September 11, President General Pervez Musharraf was treated as a pariah, one with whom the American president refused to be photographed shaking hands when he landed for a five-hour stopover in Islamabad in March 2000. Musharraf was at the time portrayed as the leader of a 'failed' state.
After September 11, the transformation was astonishing. Musharraf was promoted to a partner in the war on terror, and acclaimed as a progressive and moderate Muslim leader.
Now, however, Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and even Egypt, is reverting to a borderline status that could switch back and forth between friend and foe depending on America's changing regional objectives and interests. For instance, a Nov 27 in The Washington Post equated Pakistan and Saudi Arabia when it said: "Like the Pakistani regime of Pervez Musharraf, the Saudi government increasingly looks like a US ally only in comparison with some of the frightening alternatives."
Then it added, in what is becoming the stated US objective in the region: "The prevailing political order in the Middle East is incompatible with America's interests. Changing it, whether by means of gradual political and economic liberalization, or through the removal of aggressive dictators such as Saddam Hussein, is a challenge that the United States must take up."
Some of the recent charges being made in the United States against the Saudis are ludicrous. The wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a daughter of King Faisal, was accused of giving money to one of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks.
The charity check she gave to a needy Saudi woman is said to have gone to her husband, who gave it to a friend who, in turn, knew one of the hijackers.
Meanwhile Egypt is being accused of anti-Semitism due to a television serial. US officials have been closely watching what they say is Pakistan's North Korean nuclear connection, and Powell has transparently threatened Musharraf (with "consequences") in this regard. Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were initially perceived as the moderate Muslim states supported by the United States as a "bulwark against extremism", but this picture is changing.
Two reasons account for this change in American attitudes. As far as Saudi Arabia and Egypt go, there is the Iraq factor since both these Arab countries apparently are reluctant to support a US-led invasion of Iraq. Pressuring them on other areas is a way of getting them on board a military operation in Iraq.
The pressure has been unrelenting notwithstanding their moderate stance on the one issue that matters most to US policymakers in the Middle East: Israel. Egypt recognizes Israel, while Saudi Arabia has managed an Arab League consensus behind the Abdullah Plan that sought peace and normalization with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories plus establishment of an independent Palestine.
This has been a long-standing goal of US and Israel policy as well, but, in the changed circumstances, it is apparently not good enough. The other change is the lack of US trust and confidence in these countries, despite their moderation. Their past policies of supporting US strategy in the region no longer count.
As the book Bush at War (by Washington Post investigative editor Bob Woodward) recounts, when then-chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Mahmud Ahmed, met US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage at the State Department a day after September 11, 2001, he was handed the 'with-us-or-against-us' ultimatum.
When Mahmud tried to refer to past Pakistani services for the Americans, Armitage cut in and snapped, 'The future begins today'. His blunt message: It does not matter what you did for us in the past, what matters is now onwards.
The clubbing together of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not confined to the US media. At a joint press conference with Bush on November 23, Russian President Putin made a similar observation. "We should not forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, while Pakistan still has weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden may be hiding there."
Likewise, a CNN snap poll on November 27 showed that 69 percent of Americans admitted that they were "prejudiced against Muslims". However, this crisis also demonstrates a failure of Muslim countries that have had no coordinated media strategy or collective thinking on how to meet such challenges. As the Nov 30 Financial Times aptly commented on the flawed diplomatic strategy of Muslim states in Washington seeking "alliances based on making friends with the big boys": "It's been a relationship built on sand, not institutions."
Instead of hiring expensive public relations or lobbying firms to articulate the positions of Muslim states, the need is to establish think tanks that can sustain the battle of ideas in an organized, concerted manner.
(Inter Press Service)