Riyadh Spurns Powell on Detained Reformists
US-Saudi relations, uneven since 9/11, have hit a new low over a fresh bone of contention: a sharply-worded protest from Washington against the continued detention of 16 Saudi reform campaigners, half of them university professors and including a number of Shiite spokesmen. Their immediate release was demanded.
debkafile‘s Washington and Middle East sources describe this action as the first direct protest to an Arab nation in the framework of President George W. Bush’s initiative for spreading democratic reforms throughout the Greater Middle East. The protest was in effect an American jog to the Saudi elbow to speed up change.
Riyadh’s response was furious enough to have Secretary of State Colin Powell make an unscheduled detour after Islamabad and Baghdad and turn up in Riyadh Friday, March 19. Crown Prince Abdullah greeted him with the angry statement that the arrests were an internal affair. The interview ended in acrimony – in diplomatic parlance “a candid and open debate.”
According to our sources, the Saudis are willing to release the campaigners, who demand that Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy move towards a more constitutional model, only if they sign a pledge to stay out of politics. This they refuse to do.
In the background, debkafile‘s Cairo sources report, the 22-nation Arab League is tensely engaged in trying to agree on a plan for adoption by the March 29 Arab summit as a riposte to the US Greater Middle East Initiative. The American protest to Saudi Arabia landed in the middle of these preparations with a disturbing thump. Until then, Arab rulers had regarded the Bush democracy initiative as a long-term project to be filtered through in easy stages with enough time for argument and debate along the way. Suddenly it was hanging over their heads.
The Bush administration is also speeding up its action to punish Damascus.
Empowered by recent legislation, President Bush looks as though he is only days away from slapping sanctions down on Syria for sponsoring terrorism, occupying Lebanon, failing to stop anti-American fighters entering Iraq and maintaining chemical and biological weapons programs. Congressional sources list the sanctions expected to unfold in stages as a ban on Syrian aircraft from the United States, prohibition of American energy companies from making future investments in Syria and a block on transactions in Syrian government-owned property – to name a few.
Furthermore, Free Syria Radio takes to the air on March 31 from a US-financed station in Cyprus, two days after the Arab summit opens in Tunis.
These moves are aimed, according to our Washington sources, at breaking up the united Arab front attempting to formulate an agreed plan to combat the Greater Middle East Initiative before it takes off. This front, spearheaded by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah, now faces a direct challenge ahead of the Arab summit: come to terms with democratic reform as a living process already in motion or else risk a direct showdown with the Bush administration. They do not need to be reminded of the changes in Iraq exactly one year after the US invasion