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Great Briain: historian discusses relations between Saudi Arabia and US.

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Tuesday 5 August 2003

Great Briain: historian discusses relations between Saudi Arabia and US


MARK COLVIN: The war in Iraq is over of course, and reconstruction is underwa y despite continuing guerrilla activity, but plenty of problems remain in the Middle East. One of the biggest, potentially, is in Saudi Arabia, the American ally which nevertheless was the breeding ground for al-Qaeda. 


The British historian and commentator on Arab affairs, David Pryce-Jones, is in Australia at the moment, and he says Saudi Arabia remains a huge problem, and that the US is better off with its forces out of there. 


Pryce-Jones, who's a Senior Editor with the US National Review , spoke to me this afternoon. 


DAVID PRYCE JONES: I've always held that the American-Saudi relationship was extremely unhealthy. The Americans are… it's a democracy, it's a western power, and by supporting the Saudi Royal Family in the way in which they do they pose a real conundrum.  


What are you to say to an Arab, to a Muslim who says, you say you're a democracy and you, that's all very fine, you're promoting your values, but actually what you're doing is supporting a tyrannical family with a monopoly of the money and the power in that country. That is not democratic. How come?  


And to that question we can't give any coherent answer. And I believe that one of the most important results that we've seen from the Iraq war so far is the quick and efficient withdrawal of the Americans from their bases in Saudi Arabia. In effect they've said to the Saudis, you're on your own.  


MARK COLVIN: When the Congressional report on the September the 11th events came out there were 25 pages erased from the public view, and we had the extraordinary spectacle of the Americans saying that they should be kept quiet and the Saudis coming out and saying they wanted them publicised. What's going on there?  


DAVID PRYCE JONES: Well, I imagine that the Saudis knew that they would not get them publicised and the Saudis were trying to do a little bit of PR. I imagine that what these pages specify is intelligence information detailing payments from Saudi Arabia, either from members of Royal Family or influential people or charities, in any case, channels of money to the terrorists.  


The Saudis would want to know what these intelligence sources are, how the Americans obtained them and what the truth of it is from their point of view. I think the Americans would be very reluctant to give the Saudis information or anyone information of that sort because it would reveal where it comes from.  


So partly it's a taking of positions. And I think the arrival of the Saudi Foreign Minister was a taking of a public position. He wanted to put the Americans on the spot and the Americans refused to be out on the spot.  


MARK COLVIN: But as it is you've got this sort of opaque, almost hands off relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia; what does that say for the attempt to track down al-Qaeda, not just Osama Bin Laden, and root it out where it started? I mean, is it flourishing under the Saudis and how can we know?  


DAVID PRYCE JONES: Al-Qaeda is a… has morphed out of Saudi Arabia obviously and essentially it's a Wahabi Saudi phenomenon and at its core is Bin Laden and people of that sort who very much are Saudis. This is something that the Americans I think wisely have decided only the Saudis can sort it out.  


MARK COLVIN: You think wisely, because you were critical before, but you think in this particular policy it is wise to leave them to do it themselves?  


DAVID PRYCE JONES: Well, I don't think that the Americans really have got much of a say in the inner workings of the Saudi future. In my judgement the Saudi Royal Family can't possibly last long-term.  


It's too contradictory and too full of paradox and hypocrisy. There's also a lot of trouble in Saudi Arabia. The Shia are in full rebellion, the Shia are being persecuted in Saudi Arabia. If you were to take a plebiscite there now I imagine you'd find that an enormous majority would vote for a Bin Laden state.  


What are the Americans to do in such a predicament? How are they to choose between the horrible propping up of the Saudi Royal Family on one and the equally horrible propping up of Bin Laden on the other side?  


MARK COLVIN: Well, what is the answer? It's a total lose-lose situation.  


DAVID PRYCE JONES: It's a lose-lose situation and I've a feeling that we're going to see over the next short-term period a lot instability in Saudi Arabia. It's going to be a period now, it seems to me, when Saudi is going to have to decide what sort of a state it wants to be.  


In Saudi Arabia as I see it there's a race on between reform and revolution. If they are wise and can manage to reform in time, maybe they can head off revolution but it doesn't look as if they have that wisdom because they're monopolists, they are essentially a despotic family that believes in control.  


As I was saying from the Shia discontent and the… I see a certain number of Saudi dissidents and all of them have got horrible stories to tell, very painful. So if there were the possibility of expressing that pain on streets they would. So it's a race between reform and revolution.  


MARK COLVIN: And overall then, looking at the Middle East do you go along with say, Paul Wolfowitz's idea that democracy once it takes root will spread, will be contagious around the Middle East?  


DAVID PRYCE JONES: Well, all my life, whenever I've been in Arab countries and you talk to people, what you actually find them saying is we want democracy. So the wish is sincere. The question is how you translate the wish into actuality.  


That they want democracy I fully believe and what they mean by that, of course, is two essential features: the rule of law and accountability.  


And these are the two missing elements and these are the two foundations of democracy. It will be perfectly possible, it seems to me, to establish that Iraq and once you've done that in Iraq the knock-on effect will be very beneficial.  


MARK COLVIN: David Pryce-Jones, the writer and commentator on Arab affairs. He's also Senior Editor of the US National Review speaking to me earlier this afternoon.