| FROM RIYADH |
Saudi Arabia: The Latest
With Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2003; 10 a.m. ET
The U.S. had asked Saudi Arabia to step up security at residential compounds inhabited by Westerners just days before Monday's terrorist attacks in which eight Americans died, but the Saudi government failed to act, said Robert W. Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials denied the charge.
A known al Qaeda cell carried out and coordinated the car bombings that ripped apart buildings and homes inhabited by Americans and other Westerners. Attacks at three gated communities in Riyadh have shattered the illusion of security many who lived there felt.
Washington Post staff writer Glenn Kessler has been covering the story and was online from Riyadh on Friday, May 16 at 10 a.m. ET, to discuss the latest news about the attacks and the issues of security and terrorism. A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Glenn Kessler: This is Glenn Kessler, from Riyadh, ready to take your questions.
Parkville, Md.: Have you read Robert Baer's article "The Fall of the House of Saud" in the May edition of the Atlantic Monthly? I'd be interested to hear what you think. The article painted a portrait of a stunningly corrupt and decadent autocracy ruling over a society that's teetering on the brink of popular revolution. Baer reveals some shocking statistics:
(1) That 50 percent of Saudi oil revenues are spent on domestic security (protecting the royal family from a popular uprising).
(2) That what's left is used to sustain the lavish lifestyle of well over 10,000 Saudi "princes."
(3) That many of the lesser princes, unhappy with their relatively meager stipends, have a habit of expropriating private property to supplement their incomes.
(4) That per-capita income in Saudi Arabia has falled from some $36,000 in the 80's to a mere $9,000 today.
(5) That because of all this, if truly Democratic elections were held today in Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming victor of a popular plebiscite would (in Baer's opinion) undoubtedly be Osama bin Laden.
If the picture that Baer paints is true, I'd say the U.S. is backing a losing horse with its current foreign policy, and that we're making the same mistakes in Saudi Arabia that we made in backing such figures as the Shah of Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua, Marcos in the Philippines ... etc. Similarly disastrous results can only be expected if we don't push aggressively for democratic reforms and an end to absolutist monarchy.
Glenn Kessler: Yes, I saw that article. There are some who believe his analysis was a bit over the top. But it clear that the kingdom is facing severe strains, and they really haven't grappled with it. These attacks may be the shock necessary to move the leadership into action.
The question of democracy here is an interesting one. The Saudis very discreetly gave a lot of assistance to the U.S. during the Iraq war. If this was a democracy, I doubt that would have happened.
Washington, D.C.: The foreign affairs advisor to the Saudi Crown Prince is holding a press conference this morning at 11. What do you think he'll say?
Glenn Kessler: It's hard to predict these things, since he's in D.C. and I'm here. But he could be planning to rebut the allegations made by the U.S. ambassador that the Saudis did not respond quickly to U.S. requests for more security at the compounds. Those remarks greatly angered the Saudi government.
Falls Church, Va.: Ambassador Jordan was quoted in your article as saying that Riyadh was a "battleground rather than a nice civilian place to be." Do agree with him and do you think this will continue to be the case?
Glenn Kessler: Ambassador Jordan is a very frank man. He is greatly concerned about the security situation, and is trying to shock both the Saudi government and the owners of these compounds into action.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you worry for your own safety over there?
Glenn Kessler: My wife thinks I'm crazy, but the simple answer is no. This is a very large city of more than four million people, and the odds of being in the same place at the same moment of an attack are relatively low (if you go by the odds, and not emotion.) And the people here are extraordinarily warm and friendly.
Washington, D.C.: Your report today says the Jedawal compound could be a model for future residences for Americans in Saudi Arabia. What was so good about that one?
Glenn Kessler: It simply has better security. Cars have to go through two gates, not one. And they have to go through a narrow corridor to get to the second gate. This gave the guards at the second gate enough time to lock up and run -- and no one inside was killed.
Bethesda, Md.: Is it true that the Saudis didn't act to provide more security prior to Monday's attacks? You reported that the U.S. government had asked for it but the Saudis denied the charge. Can you explain?
Glenn Kessler: The U.S. says they brought this up several times in the weeks leading up to the attacks. It was a rather broad request -- more security at hundreds of residential compounds. The Saudis say they looked at one specific compound -- Jedawal -- and decided it was secure enough. (That was probably correct -- no one inside died there.) Even the U.S. ambassador concedes that more armed guards might not have made a difference at the other two compounds.
I actually think the ambassador didn't mean to create such a firestorm. But he has certainly drawn attention to those requests with his remarks.
Washington, D.C.: The allegation that the Saudis did not respond to a request for more security was flaty rejected by the Prince in the same news article Ambassador Jordan's claim. Yet the major news story is that the Saudis were unresponsive.
On to my question though. Where did the people who blew up the compounds get their explosives? In what country/plant do authorities believe that the explosives were manufactured and how did or do terrorists buy literally tons of the stuff without it being noticed?
Glenn Kessler: The border with Yemen is very porous. That's the likely way it got in the country.
Montgomery, Ala.: What are the specific reasons that the Saudi government is so reluctant to cooperate fully with the U.S. on these bombings?
Glenn Kessler: U.S. officials I have spoken to say the Saudis thus far have been very cooperative since the attacks. We'll see what happens after the CIA/FBI team has spent a few days here.
Vienna, Va.: How many more countries do Americans have to worry about in the Middle East? Is this all a direct effect of the war with Iraq or are things more deep-seated?
Glenn Kessler: There is a lot of anger in the Arab world at what is perceived as the Bush administration's tilt to Israel. But most people don't support these kind of terrorist attacks.
Washington, D.C.: It is common knowledge that Foreign Service officers and CIA officers who speak and read Arabic are denied assignments to Saudi Arabia at their insistence. Ambassador Horan was recalled that way.
Glenn Kessler: For what's it's worth, I met an embassy official here who speaks fluent Arabic. I'm sure there are others.
Boston, Mass.: The picture one gets of Saudi Arabia today is one of a handful of oil sheiks and princes connected to the Saudi family, vast poverty, and nothing in between. Is there such thing as a Saudi "middle class," forming the foundation of a civil society, that could challenge the regime over political reforms, or the teaching of virulent Wahhabism rather than, say, math and science, in schools? Might they be emboldened if Iraq provides a model for democratic state building and the Israel/Palestine issues are resolved over the next several years(two huge "ifs," admittedly)?
Glenn Kessler: I spent some time today in the house of a doctor, who was quite open about the problems with the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia. And I would say his neighborhood was middle class, or upper middle class. I'm not sure of the statistics, but there appears to be something of a middle class here -- and interest in opening up the political system.
Glenn Kessler: There are many more questions, but I have to sign off now. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to address some of them!
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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