by DEBKAfile, 19 January 2002

"The prize for which Osama bin Laden launched al Qaeda and his terror campaign in 1990 is now within his reach: the eviction of US forces from sacred Saudi soil. TheWashington Post and the Financial Times report that Saudi rulers think the US has 'overstayed its welcome', a disclosure appearing earlier in DEBKAfile.

That year, American troops landed in the kingdom to safeguard it from the threat posed by Iraq.  US raids against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War were mounted from Saudi bases, as were subsequent air strikes against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, in the middle of the US-led war on terror, Saudi rulers are pulling the rug out from under its feet and giving the world’s leading terrorist the first spoils of war.

On Friday, January 19, US secretary of state Colin Powell denied this is happening. 'I have talked to Saudi officials at very senior levels to include my counterpart, foreign minister Saud (al Faisal), almost every other day this past week,' said Powell to reporters in Kathmandu, Nepal, 'and there has been no discussion of such an issue.' He did add however: 'At the same time, we are constantly reviewing our footprint in that part of the world to see if we have the right distribution of presence over the various countries that are there.'

What is emerging from a round of high-level US-Saudi exchanges and visits over the past week is that the adamant Saudi opposition to the US war against terror, expressed after the September 11 suicide attacks in which Saudi nationals were found to have participated, has, if anything, hardened. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who stands in for the ailing king, has swung most of the royal house around to his view that a parting of the ways with America is at hand, and that the national Saudi interest must takes precedence over Washington’s.

These were the sentiments conveyed to President George W. Bush in his telephone conversation with Prince Abdullah last week; also to Senator John Rockefeller in his talks with the Crown Prince and Saudi chief of intelligence, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz. This would also have been the situation confronting the chairman of the joint US chiefs of staff Gen. Richard.B. Myers – had he been received in Riyadh on January 15 – except that the Saudis made their feelings crystal clear by refusing him an invitation.

Riyadh has shown no willingness for compromise - even when the Americans promised to scale down of their military presence in the big Prince Sultan airbase east of Riyadh, after Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos had agreed to an expanded US presence at the Mesirah air base overlooking the Persian Gulf.  In same cases, the Saudi have been downright hostile, taking actions on which the latest issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly expands:

1.  While Americans soldiers are not welcome in Saudi Arabia, at least 4,000 Saudi al-Qaeda fighters have been allowed to return home from the Afghan War in a still continuing stream. After a cursory check at Saudi passport control, most are waved through and allowed to go home to their families. The Saudis reject outright all Washington’s requests to detain these arrivals, check their identities or even photograph these suspected al Qaeda fighters.

2.  Hundreds of returned Saudi al Qaeda fighters are using their passports to wander round the Middle East on unknown errands. Until now, they usually crossed into the Hashemite Kingdom first and continued north into Syria and Lebanon. After a brief stay in Damascus or Beirut, they returned to Saudi Arabia. US and Jordanian sources believe they have found a way to smuggle large quantities of weapons and explosives into Saudi Arabia, or else are performing some other services for al Qaeda. Last week, Jordan sealed its borders with both Saudi Arabia and Syria. The slippery ex-Afghan fighters quickly developed a new route through the Gulf emirates, especially Kuwait, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, reaching Beirut via Cyprus or direct.

 3. Saudi authorities have spurned every request from Washington to plug the outflow of funds through extremist Muslim societies, ostensibly charities, believed to be oiling the al Qaeda escape machinery. They have also refused access to Saudi bank accounts and the records of past fund transfers.

4. Saudi leaders have not only turned thumbs down on a possible full-scale US assault against Iraq; they have welcomed feelers from Baghdad on the resumption of the bilateral ties severed before the 1991 Gulf War and are thinking in terms of a new anti-American bloc that will also embrace Tehran. The formation of this tripartite alliance, still in the future, would seriously complicate US plans for a full-scale offensive against Iraq - or even against any Arab country harboring terrorists, such as Syria and Lebanon.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly ’s Middle East experts see the widening US-Saudi rift as generating the emergence of two central Arab blocs: A pro-Washington grouping comprising Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, grounded in US and Israeli military, economic and intelligence assistance, and a second bloc, made up of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians and Iraq, as well as some Gulf states. Egypt will have to decide where it belongs."