SAUDI ARABIA is at the centre of US policies in both the Middle East and Central Asia. This Western ally, one of the world's biggest oil producers, is ruled by the royal family-and there is no democracy whatever. The US and Britain armed Saudi Arabia, and used it as the key military base in the war against Iraq.
The Saudi royals promised US forces would leave once Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Instead they have remained. They are there to prop up a Saudi regime increasingly threatened by internal discontent. Most Saudis oppose the presence of US forces, and hatred of the Saudi regime itself is growing.
Average incomes are plummeting for most people. The Financial Times notes that annual income per head has fallen from '£11,000 in the early 1980s to about £4,800 now. 'The sprawling avenues of downtown Riyadh [the capital] with the US-style malls and luxurious boutiques stand in sharp contrast to the poverty of the south of the city, where some women beg in the streets.'
Many middle class Saudis, excluded from any influence over the government, reflect the mood against the regime and its US backers in religious terms. One Saudi lawyer told the Financial Times, 'No one likes US policies, and young people see Bin Laden as a hero because he is the underdog confronting the superpower.'
Members of the Saudi elite question whether Bin Laden was responsible for the attacks on the US. They point to the lack of evidence so far, and that there are Saudi groups with no link to Bin Laden which could just as easily have been responsible. The reputable journalist Ali Laidi, writing in the French mainstream daily Le Monde, spelt out the same possibility this week.
He points out that since the early 1990s several opposition groups in Saudi Arabia have staged bombings and attacks inside the country, most recently last weekend, including attacks on US forces and bases. The majority of the hijackers on the planes used in the attacks on the US were from Saudi Arabia.
Many, argues Ali Laidi, have family names indicating they are from the southern Assir region of Saudi Arabia. The region has long been a centre of opposition to the regime. Neither the Saudi regime, nor Bush and Blair, are interested in the possibility that it was groups within Saudi Arabia with little or no connection with Bin Laden who carried out the 11 September attacks.
If they did so they would undermine their pretext for waging war on Afghanistan. And it would mean turning on the Saudi royals, who taught ultra-puritanical treatment of women and public execution to the Taliban.