RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Yoo-hoo, President Bush.
Watching the president woo Europe, I wanted to go to the top of my hotel and wave him down into the Middle East. The sweet sounds of rapprochement coming from the president's trip are not what I'm hearing in Saudi Arabia. Here, the United States and George Bush in particular are distinctly disliked.
Some of that, of course, stems from America's invasion of nearby Iraq and the effect of TV footage showing civilian casualties. The Saudis had no love for Saddam Hussein, but the Iraqi people are a different matter. They are fellow Arabs -- same language, same religion. That's what in Anglo-American terms is called a special relationship.
But America once had a special relationship with this country, too. It dates back to the 1930s, when U.S. engineers drilled the first oil wells, and was solidified by the famous 1945 shipboard meeting of Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud. Since then Saudi Arabia has been closely aligned with the United States, and it is the rare Saudi businessman or government official who has not studied in America -- and in some cases longs for it still. In a sandstorm, thoughts can sometimes turn to student days spent in verdant North Carolina or the cool California coast.
Yet the same elites often express a bitterness toward the United States that even former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, traveling though the region, found startling. That anger usually shows itself 10 or 15 minutes into a meeting and is always preceded with a declaration of affection, which of course makes it all the more vehement. It is one thing, after all, to be dissed by your enemies, but your friends are another matter.
Some of the grievances sound petty, but they wound. It seems every businessman here has a story about some abuse by a customs or immigration official or even a traffic cop. One told of a young man who was denied a visa because on a previous trip to the United States he had blown off a traffic ticket. Another told how a cop in the Denver area summoned the FBI when a Saudi student there got into a fender bender. Others tell of humiliating delays at immigration -- hours spent at one airport or another waiting to see if they will be readmitted to the country where they attended school and, often, own a home.
Are all these stories true? I don't know. But they are widely believed and considered typical. Clearly, with all this smoke, there has to be some fire. Even Tom Ridge, the former head of homeland security, admitted at the Jiddah Economic Forum that something was awfully amiss.
Casting a shadow over everything is that old chestnut: American support for Israel. This comes up all the time, a universal and quite emotional complaint that is sometimes characterized as a betrayal. It now comes down to how President Bush became Israel's champion and not, as the United States had long (and somewhat disingenuously) maintained, an honest broker. The best way to fix this, of course, is for the United States to once again attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Such a deal now seems within reach -- as it has several times previously -- and the United States is once again showing some initiative. At the right moment, some people suggested, Bush should name Bill Clinton as his Middle East negotiator. It's not a bad idea.
Clearly, there is no overlooking the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudis. There is no overlooking, either, Saudi funding of Islamic extremists -- even though, I was repeatedly told, Saudis did not know that their charitable donations were being diverted to violent extremists. There is no overlooking the fact that this is an absolute monarchy, that women can't vote or drive, and that the religious establishment, not to mention the average Saudi, is deeply hostile toward Israel and either fearful of, or in a rage against, modernity. Uncle Sam has his work cut out for him. He's Israel's buddy and modernity personified.
But also there is no overlooking the fact that Bush's brand of either-you're-with-us-or-against-us diplomacy has alienated even those Saudis who consider America their second home. It's not likely the president would ever visit here -- what a security headache! -- but a charm offensive of some sort is clearly in order. After just a brief time here, it's clear to me that any American exploring Saudi Arabia today is not going to find oil -- it's been accounted for, thank you -- but with a little digging will encounter a gusher of grievances. Like the oil, they're just beneath the surface.