Bush Visits Saudi Arabia Amid Changing Alliance

President Bush visits Saudi Arabia on Monday, a nation that has struggled to maintain good relations with Washington while also trying to rein in Islamic radicals at home.

The al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sparked a wave of animosity and suspicion toward Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for many of the hijackers. If anything, though, Saudis say the rocky road of the past five years has shown the durability of their long alliance with the U.S.

It is a relationship founded on oil and the Saudi commitment to seeing that vast Middle East reserves continue to flow to the energy-hungry West.

But that relationship has altered significantly in recent years. These days, China and India are more dependent on Saudi oil than the U.S., which has diversified its suppliers. At the same time, although most U.S. troops have been moved out of the kingdom, the security component of the relationship has moved to the forefront as Riyadh and Washington share intelligence and resources in the fight against Islamist militants.

It was the 2003 al-Qaida attacks in Saudi Arabia that helped change the American perception of the kingdom from an exporter of militants to a target of Islamist violence. Saudi officials say those attacks also turned the local population against al-Qaida.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said security forces have been able to thwart a series of attacks in recent years in part because of much more active assistance from the public.

"They have recognized that the al-Qaida ideology is an ideology to inflame terrorism rather than trying to set up a new approach for Muslim societies," he said.

Al-Turki also said communication in other areas remains poor. Last week, for instance, the national security adviser in the U.S.-backed government in Iraq announced that "hundreds" of Saudis had been arrested in Iraq on suspicion of militant activities and were ready to be returned to their homeland. Saudis learned about that announcement in the media, al-Turki said, because except for an occasional conference, the two security forces rarely communicate.

"We're surprised that sometimes a Saudi could be arrested in Iraq and then released again inside Iraq," he said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Saudis say, it was the invasion of Iraq that has had the most profound effect on U.S.-Saudi relations. Saleh al-Mani, dean of the college of law and political science at King Saud University, said the invasion and the way it was handled, led inevitably to the current crisis with Iran by removing Saddam Hussein and his Sunni bulwark against the regional ambitions of the Shiite leadership.

"The invasion of Iraq has really disturbed the balance of power in the region," al-Mani said. "So we have now a problem with Iran having so much influence in the region and in Iraq."

Many Saudis say they are baffled by U.S. policy toward Iran, but they are most worried about another military conflict on their doorstep. Al-Mani said the U.S. would be wise to let diplomacy and sanctions have their full effect, because Iranians appear to be getting fed up with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies.

"There is a strategic change going on in this part of the world, whereby Iran is really trying to play the big card," al-Mani said. "But they're playing the big card on the military level — and they're losing. It's costing them economically. We have one year left in Ahmadinejad's administration, so I think perhaps the next administration will be much more cooperative, like Khatami and so on."

Iran's relatively moderate former President Mohammad Khatami has been more vocal lately. Many American conservatives are pressing for aggressive action against the current leadership. Saudis hope that their relations with this American president, which began amid terrorism, war and Middle East turmoil doesn't end the same way.

Bush Announces $20 Billion Arms Deal for Saudis

President Bush, on his first visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday, delivered a major arms deal aimed at countering the perceived threat from Iran.

Bush also met with Saudi King Abdullah in talks expected to cover the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The arms sale, which Congress has 30 days to review, would amount to $20 billion worth of weapons, including precision-guided bombs. It is "a pretty big package, lots of pieces," national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters on Air Force One.

The sale is an important part of the U.S. strategy to bolster the defenses of oil-producing Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia, against threats from Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states with majority Sunni Muslim populations, harbor deep suspicions about Shiite Iran.

Earlier, in the United Arab Emirates, Bush told a gathering of entrepreneurs and others that he wanted them to understand that America respects their religion.

"We want to work together for the sake of freedom and peace," he said.

The session was held in a conference room high atop one of Dubai's signature buildings, a luxury hotel shaped like a tall ship sail. The Burj Al Arab occupies its own manmade island.

Dubai has installed one of the world's most comprehensive homeland security and antiterrorism systems. Many antiterror analysts believe the threat of attack by Islamic extremists in Dubai is growing — fueled by the city's image as a bastion of Western-style capitalism and nightlife, its new status as home to the world's tallest building and the frequent port calls by U.S. Navy ships.

Dubai also is caught in the middle of the West's efforts to crack down on business in and out of Iran to protest its nuclear ambitions. Dubai, with a powerful Iranian business community, is eager to maintain its lucrative financial ties with Tehran, but wary of angering the United States and the United Nations.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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