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Published: Friday, 5/16/2003

Attack in Saudi Arabia

THIS week's fatal attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on buildings housing westerners were not unprecedented. But whether they were unavoidable is definitely another matter. Some such attack was a foreseeable result of a number of recent events: the United States' invasion and occupation of an Arab country, the decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, the erection of obstacles to the “road map” proposal for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Who knows which factors, or all of them, prompted the horrifying attacks? And the whole affair took on a new twist when intelligence experts said that a Kuwaiti native who grew up in St. Catharines, Ont., Abdul Rahman Jabarah, may have been the mastermind behind the plot.

Saudi Arabia has been home for many years to many U.S. businesses and American citizens, currently numbering some 40,000. Their presence reflects the closeness of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly in the commercial field.

Since the first Iraq war, the United States has also had a considerable military presence in Saudi Arabia. The first war added based forces to training elements. The U.S. presence has always represented a vulnerability as well as an asset. Americans draw hostility both for their alliance with the Saudi monarchy and for America's support of Israel, which is a preoccupation of Arabs and, to a lesser degree, of Muslims in general, two of whose holiest sites are found in Saudi Arabia.

The attacks were carried out against four residential sites occupied partly by Americans. The numbers are still rising, but it appears that 11 Americans were killed and 40 injured, of a total of 29 dead and more than 200 wounded. The attacks came immediately before the arrival in Saudi Arabia of Secretary of State Colin Powell, underscoring the link.

If the attacks were indeed the work of al-Qaeda - and Jabarah has risen quickly within bin Laden's ranks - it is a matter of concern that it is still able to do so even after having been hounded by the United States and its allies since Sept. 11, 2001.

On the other hand, the situation might be considered to be even more hazardous if the attack were found to have been carried out by other elements. Even those who supported the U.S. attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation of that country recognized that it posed the risk of retribution by radical Arab elements.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent decision to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia from 10,000 to 500, though gratifying to opponents of the Saudi monarchy, nonetheless signaled a reduction in U.S. commitment to that regime, perhaps leading dissidents to declare “open season.”

Although the linkage is less clear, the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept the road map for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement during Mr. Powell's just completed visit there also can't have helped the overall perception of the U.S. role in the Middle East.

The attack might well have occurred anyway. In 1996, in a different political context, extremists in Saudi Arabia attacked a U.S. military residential complex, killing 19.

Even so, this is a rough time for America in its relations with Arab and Muslim countries, and for U.S. citizens who live and work in the Middle East.



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