Advice for Riyadh from a candid American friend

06 September 2002

For experience of the Middle East and an appreciation of the complexities of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia, few can outshine Richard Murphy, senior fellow in the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations. After a career of almost four decades in the US foreign service which culminated with the ambassadorship in the kingdom and a top policy position in the State Department, Murphy has emerged as a respected interpreter of Middle East developments. He remains a candid friend of the Arab world at a time when US emotions are running high in the wake of the murderous attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September.

Murphy remains confident that the rhetoric in the US will subside and that the key elements of the relationship will survive the recent assaults. 'There is certainly a lot of this in the air and there is a lot of irritation on both sides,' Murphy said in a telephone interview with MEED on 21 August. 'Both sides are going to have to sit down and talk these things out. I think the relationship remains very much in the mutual interests of Saudi Arabia and the US.'

Murphy tracks the problems back to the attack on the Al-Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American military personnel in June 1996. 'The FBI was certainly irritated they could not get access to the kingdom,' said Murphy. 'The Saudis said they would run this investigation and the FBI felt shut out. However, people within the FBI would acknowledge that we would not have let the Saudis have access in the US if the positions had been reversed.

'Then after 11 September, the Saudis went into deep denial publicly. That did not help. But quietly, they have sent to Washington officials from the Finance Ministry and from SAMA [Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency - central bank] to discuss how you set up a way of monitoring the flow of money through charitable institutions, something they never did before.'

In July, Laurent Murawiec of the Rand Corporation gave a briefing to the US' Defence Policy Board which accused the kingdom of being at the heart of Middle East terrorism. Murphy categorically dismissed the presentation. 'The Rand Corporation briefing is one of the most foolish statements made about Saudi Arabia,' Murphy said. 'Though it had some competition for foolishness.'

On 16 August, lawyers representing the families of victims of 11 September filed a suit in a federal court in Washington claiming trillions of dollars of compensation against Saudi Arabian individuals and institutions for helping to finance Al-Qaeda. Murphy has met Allan Gerson, one of the legal team working for the families on the case. 'The lawyers representing the families of victims of 11 September say this is the only way to get the issue aired. They are saying they are going to privatise justice,' said Murphy. 'They are claiming that the establishment has wittingly bribed Osama Bin Laden to stay out of Saudi Arabia. That I challenge. It is quite possible that this case will be subject to an early motion to dismiss.'

Murphy pointed out that American culpability is being overlooked in the quest for people who funded Al-Qaeda. 'One thing we are not acknowledging is that in the 1980s we did our share to inflame support by financing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.'

Murphy said that Secretary of State Colin Powell recognises the benefits of good relations with the kingdom. 'I think Powell is very much aware of this relationship. What has got out of sync is the dynamism of the Defence Department. The daily briefings by Donald Rumsfeld are going beyond reasonable limits.' 'He [Rumsfeld] had no business talking about the occupied territories. It has caused a lot of damage to the work by previous administrations to try to get the Palestinians in a state of mind to think positively about the future of the territories. It was very irresponsible.'

The possibility of an American attack on Iraq is a further issue in view of Saudi Arabia's categorical statements that the kingdom's territory will not be used for assaults on the country. Murphy believes that, despite signs of the start of a debate about US policy towards Iraq which began with senate hearings in July, the thrust towards war is strong. 'I think it will happen. I am on the pessimistic side,' he said.

Murphy argues that Saudi Arabia has to do more to help rebuild confidence in the US by taking firm action against any links there may be between Saudi Arabians and supporters of Bin Laden. 'I don't want to leave the impression it is only up to the US. Riyadh has to work very hard too on the investigation side, on the prosecution side and on the money side.'

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