Posted on December 02, 2002 in Washington Watch

The US-Saudi relationship, while still strong on the official end, is nevertheless in grave danger. Just how grave was brought home last week by the near hysterical press reaction to what was, in fact, a non-story.

The non-story involved Princess Haifa al Faisal, wife of Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan and, daughter of the late King Faisal. It appears that contributions made by the Princess, through an indirect routing, went to an individual who also, at one time, provided some settlement assistance to two of the Saudis who were involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The connection was, at best, remote. In fact, there is not even a hint or a suggestion that the Princess was engaged in anything other than an act of legitimate charitable giving. And after investigating the individual who was said to have assisted the two Saudi hijackers, the FBI found him innocent of any wrongdoing. Given the facts, this was a non-story.

But precisely because this non-story involved Saudis, it exploded into four days of major news coverage on all the US networks, the newsmagazines and the daily press.

A leak from a Congressional committee and comments made by prominent US Senators seeking to use television time for political advantage fed the non-story with allegations that a “Saudi money trail” existed, “possibly” tying the Saudi government to the hijackers. They called for an investigation and charged that “the Saudis aren’t doing enough.”

In reality, given the facts as they are, a better case could have been made to indict the US government for assisting Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, since McVeigh had been in the US military and presumably received training and financial support directly from the US government. Reports of a so-called Saudi money trail were in the instance under discussion even more remote.

But what caused the non-story to explode into the headlines were not facts about a “money trail.” It was that the story was about Saudi Arabia. The non-story was merely a ringing bell that served to awaken the demons of anger and hate in those who have a crazed reaction to all things Saudi.

I appeared on a number of the television programs where this matter was being debated. I went prepared to discuss “the story,” but became quickly aware that the problem was deeper and bigger than the non-story of the Princess and the so-called “money trail.” One host, for example, almost immediately went on the attack shouting insults about “Saudi oppression of women,” “teaching hatred in schools,” and “oil.” As I looked into the face of this obviously distraught commentator, I thought, “This is beyond politics and facts; this guy needs psychological help.”

And this is my point. The situation has moved beyond misinformation and ignorance to an unhealthy fear and anger.

There are probably several factors that account for why this has all spun out of control. On the one hand, of course, is the terrible fact of 9-11 and the horrible shock it created. But it’s what occurred before and after 9-11, that is responsible for the current mess.

On the one hand, Americans, despite having favorable views of Saudi Arabia before 9-11, did not know the country and its people. As they began to ask questions about that country and its people after the terror attacks, those who were organized and ready to provide the answers were overwhelmingly hostile, not only to Saudi Arabia, but to all things Arab.

Within a short-time after 9-11, the conventional wisdom about Saudi Arabia and Islam was being shaped by anti-Arab bigots of the right and left, religious fundamentalists and political opportunists who saw it to their advantage to play along with this growing negative current.

With at least three all news cable television channels and countless radio talk shows providing information to millions of Americans, a tidal wave of distortion overwhelmed efforts to provide a healthier view.

And so despite significant official efforts by President Bush, Secretary Powell and the Saudi government to inform the public discussion with a calming assessment of the US-Saudi relationship, they were drowned out by the steady flow of attacks by neo-conservative commentators and the rantings by fundamentalist preachers. While defenders of the relationship focused on policy matters, the attackers focused on presenting an exaggerated distorted view of the Saudi people, culture, religion and government.

It is said that ignorance can be dangerous, but more dangerous is ignorance compounded by fear. Even more lethal, however, is when fear and ignorance are fed with what passes for knowledge. It appears that all that is required these days to pass for an expert on Saudi Arabia is to know a few words like: jihad, Wahhabi, shahid, madrasa, etc. In fact, if you can put a few of these words into one sentence, as in, “Saudis, inspired by Wahhabism are funding madrasas that teach jihad,” then you are a real expert.

This is what we are up against. The seriousness of the situation cannot be ignored. All of our efforts must be reexamined. The crisis cannot be resolved with passive programs; people aren’t reading books. They are getting information on TV and radio. And messages that reinforce fear and prejudice are more easily believed than complex discussions or explanations. “Finger in the dike” response approaches aren’t enough; the situation will not be remedied by “facts.” The public isn’t listening and politicians do not appear to be willing to buck the accepted “wisdom.”

The enormity of the current problem, of course, is that the anger and fear are two-sided. Just as Saudi Arabia’s favorable rating has plummeted in the US, recent polling shows that the US’s ratings have precipitously fallen in Saudi Arabia as well. Lost, in all of this, is the reality of one-half century of mutually beneficial partnerships that have served both peoples.

One of bin Laden’s aims in his campaign of terror has been to destroy the US-Saudi relationship. It has become increasingly clear that his goal is shared by those on the US side only too eager to add their own poison to the well of understanding.

What is required at this time is a recognition of the severity of this problem and a clear-headed understanding of the fact that what is needed is a dramatic new initiative to respond to a crisis situation. Those who value the US-Saudi relationship must come together to design an approach worthy of the challenge. It must be dramatic, but it must also be sustained over the long-term. A positive event, like a significant new policy initiative, can serve as a “wake-up,” but it will only help turn the deteriorating situation around, if it is followed by an intensive effort to provide new information to an awakened public. What Americans still need to know is who Saudis are and what their country is all about. They were uninformed before 9-11, they’ve been frightened and angered by disinformation after 9-11. The challenge now is to inform.

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