First in a series

On Aug. 24, Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, the leader of Saudi Arabia, was in his palace in Riyadh watching President Bush's televised news conference in Texas when Bush was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," which had again been undermined by a new round of violence.

"The Israelis will not negotiate under terrorist threat, simple as that," Bush said. "And if the Palestinians are interested in a dialogue, then I strongly urge Mr. Arafat to put 100 percent effort into . . . stopping the terrorist activity. And I believe he can do a better job of doing that."

Abdullah interpreted the president's remarks as absolving Israel and blaming Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, for worsening conditions, according to a senior Saudi official. An impulsive, emotional man, Abdullah "just went bananas," the same official said. The crown prince picked up the telephone and called his ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was watching the same news conference at his palatial residence in Aspen, Colo.

Abdullah said he wanted Bandar to see Bush at once and deliver a harsh message, the culmination of months of tension between Saudi Arabia and the new Bush administration. The message delivered by Bandar to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was summarized by a senior Saudi official in these terms:

"We believe there has been a strategic decision by the United States that its national interest in the Middle East is 100-percent based on [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon." This was America's right, the message continued, but Saudi Arabia could not accept the decision. "Starting from today, you're from Uruguay, as they say. You [Americans] go your way, I [Saudi Arabia] go my way. From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America's interests lie in the region."

Bandar was instructed to cut off further discussion between the two countries. The time had come to "get busy rearranging our lives in the Middle East."

Bandar's message was a shock to the Bush administration. As had often happened in the past, these two countries -- intimate strangers in many respects -- had not really been hearing each other. But over the next two days, the United States went to extraordinary lengths to try to repair the relationship, its closest with any Arab country, finally satisfying the Saudis with a personal letter to Abdullah from the president himself.

Two Disparate Nations

Not really hearing each other has long helped both countries sustain the idea that they are close allies, and not an odd couple. In fact, they could hardly be more different. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy ruled secretively by one family, the huge Saud clan, in collaboration with Islamic fundamentalists; it has neither free media nor transparent legal institutions, nor any guarantees of human or civil rights.

By not acknowledging their fundamental differences, neither country has had to confront them. Their relations have been a diplomatic version of "don't ask, don't tell," a phrase Bandar said might have been inspired by a verse from the Koran: "Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble."

What has been plain to officials of both countries is their self-interest. Saudi Arabia wants, and has always received, American protection. The United States needs, and has nearly always received, Saudi oil. What can cause trouble is the realization that these two allies have very little in common beyond security and oil.

"Have we [the United States and Saudi Arabia] understood each other particularly well?" asked Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush. "Probably not. And I think, in a sense, we probably avoid talking about the things that are the real problems between us because it's a very polite relationship. We don't get all that much below the surface."

Oil and security did provide the basis for a fruitful relationship from the mid-1970s through the Persian Gulf War in 1991. With U.S. backing, Saudi Arabia transformed itself from a medieval desert kingdom to a modern and wealthy state. Saudi money greased the relationship and supported U.S. policy goals from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, while Saudi leaders often defended U.S. interests in the councils of Arab states.

Sept. 11 and its aftermath confronted Americans with the impolite fact that their principal Arab ally is a theocratic monarchy that has supported Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world. Even more upsetting, Osama bin Laden and 15 of the terrorists who crashed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were Saudis. These discoveries prompted an angry American reaction that alarmed the Saudis and shook their confidence in their most important diplomatic relationship.

But as Abdullah's own anger in August demonstrated, the relationship was coming under serious strain even before Sept. 11. After the Cold War and the Gulf War, "a lot of common interest disappeared," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Sharp differences had already emerged about how to deal with Iraq and Iran -- two of the three countries in Bush's "axis of evil" and both neighbors of Saudi Arabia. Potentially more threatening have been starkly differing views over how to deal with Israel and Arafat, which caused the previously unreported incident in August. Saudis have begun to question the continued efficacy of the U.S. military presence in their country. Altogether, points of disagreement now threaten to overwhelm the two countries' shared interests.

These articles will explore the evolution of this "special relationship" and examine its uncertain future as Bush presses the U.S. war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan. They are based on official documents and more than 60 interviews with U.S. officials and senior Saudi analysts and officials, many of whom insisted on anonymity. Senior U.S. officials refused to discuss the August episode or the future of Saudi-U.S. relations, apparently because of the extreme sensitivity of the relationship. "We've decided we won't be participating in these articles," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the National Security Council.

High Expectations

2001 began hopefully for the Saudis. The new U.S. president was the son of the most popular American in Saudi Arabia, George H.W. Bush, a national hero for his role in protecting the kingdom from Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1990-91. Saudis, who know about dynasties, had high expectations for the son.

Those expectations turned into bitter disappointment as the year progressed and Israeli-Palestinian relations continued to deteriorate. Throughout the Arab world, frustration grew with the United States for standing silently on the sidelines as the violence intensified. Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler because of the prolonged incapacitation of King Fahd, his half-brother, became increasingly angry, according to Saudi sources.

The Americans realized that Abdullah was upset and tried repeatedly to calm him, U.S. officials said. Bush invited him to visit Washington, Camp David, his ranch in Crawford, even the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. -- a venue proposed because Roosevelt and Abdullah's father, King Abdulaziz, known also as ibn Saud, established the modern Saudi-American relationship in a meeting onboard a ship on the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal in 1945. The president's father telephoned Abdullah to try to assure the crown prince that the new president's "heart was in the right place." But Abdullah rebuffed all of these advances.

Making Frustrations Clear

Palestine, and then Israel, had been a sensitive subject in Saudi-U.S. relations since Roosevelt's first contacts with ibn Saud. Israel's battlefield successes provoked a Saudi-led oil embargo against the United States in 1973. After Ariel Sharon was elected Israel's prime minister in February 2001, the Saudis pressed the United States repeatedly to restrain Sharon and bring him back to the negotiating table.

In a series of letters to Bush and in other messages to Washington, Abdullah made his frustrations clear. "Don't they see what is happening to Palestinian children, women and the elderly?" Abdullah asked in an interview with the Financial Times in June. He was seeing this himself, his associates said, on television almost every night. Official Saudi television showed extensive film clips of the fighting and of Israel's forceful military actions in nearly every news broadcast.

But the Bush administration did not respond, and did not take action to stop the violence. The new administration sought to distance itself from the policy of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, who made the last serious effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in his final weeks in office. The Bush administration told the Israelis and the Palestinians that if they wanted to resume the peace talks, they should do so themselves.

In July, the Saudis issued a statement in the name of King Fahd, warning that Israel's "systematic actions" against the Palestinians risked plunging the Middle East "into a dangerous phase." Two weeks later, Vice President Cheney gave an interview that appeared to endorse Israel's preemptive attacks against Palestinians whom Israel suspected of terrorism, further upsetting the Saudis.

On Aug. 9, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Qussaibi, published an article in Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, that ridiculed Bush as a know-nothing governed by "complexes" -- first of all, a desire to avoid looking like his father or his predecessor. "In a few months, this man created enemies for America to an extent making him worthy of a new prize, to be called the prize for transforming friends into adversaries, effortlessly," wrote Qussaibi. Saudi diplomats learned that Bush saw an account of this article and that he was not amused.

On the night of Aug. 23, Israeli tanks made their deepest incursion yet into the West Bank, into the town of Hebron, marking a new escalation of the fighting. On the same day, according to two Saudi officials, Abdullah saw news footage from the West Bank of an Israeli soldier holding a Palestinian woman to the ground by putting his boot on her head. "Abdullah saw that and he went berserk," one senior Saudi recounted. "A woman being beaten by a man -- he just felt this is the ultimate insult."

Abdullah responded by calling Bandar, his unusual ambassador in Washington. Bandar is the son of Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister and Abdullah's half-brother. Bandar's mother was a servant, and Sultan did not recognize him as a legitimate son until he was a teenager. After training as a pilot, Bandar became the Saudi Air Force's one-man acrobatic team -- its version of the Blue Angels. He was then assigned to Washington as a military attache{acute}, lobbying Congress to approve the sale of F-5 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and learning about U.S. politics. He was just 34 when King Fahd, his uncle and mentor, named him ambassador to the United States in 1983.

Over the years, Bandar came to personally embody the Saudi-American relationship. His gregarious charm and gift for the big gesture won him easy access to high-level officials, and he became a close personal friend of the first President Bush, invited to family events at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The dean of the diplomatic corps by virtue of his long assignment in Washington, Bandar is the only ambassador who has his own State Department security detail -- granted to him because of "threats" and his status as a prince, according to a State Department spokesman. But in the 1990s, held at arm's length by the Clinton administration, he seemed to lose his fire for the job. "I was getting completely bored," Bandar acknowledged.

When Abdullah telephoned that day in August, Bandar was in Aspen at the vast compound he built there, appraised at $55 million by the local tax collector. The 70,000-square-foot main house has 15 bedrooms and 16 baths. Bandar also has a house overlooking the Potomac in McLean, a palace in Saudi Arabia and a country estate in the English countryside.

Bandar was out when the crown prince called, and by the time he got home, according to a Saudi official, it was the middle of the night in Riyadh, the Saudi capital -- too late to talk with Abdullah. The next morning, after the Bush news conference, Abdullah called again to dispatch him with his message.

The Saudi embassy thought there might be a U.S. answer within four or five days, but it came in only 36 hours. "We were told there was an answer ready to go back [to Abdullah] that answers every point," one senior official said. Bandar picked up the letter and took it personally to the crown prince in Riyadh.

Crucial Letter From Bush

For the Saudis, Bush's letter was "groundbreaking. . . . Things in it had never been put in writing," one Saudi official said. According to Saudi accounts, Bush outlined an even-handed approach to settling the Arab-Israeli dispute that differed considerably from Sharon's positions on the peace process. One Saudi official said this was a key element: a U.S. vision of a peace settlement that was acceptable to the Saudis, and that differed from any Israeli plan.

Bush's letter, according to Saudi officials, endorsed the idea of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He expressed a willingness to begin participating more actively in the peace process. Altogether, said Adel Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to Abdullah, "where he stood was not that much different from where Clinton stood when he left office."

A particularly important passage in Bush's businesslike, two-page letter, Saudi officials said, was his response to Abdullah's complaints about the ways Israelis were treating Palestinians in the occupied territories. In the message to Bush that was conveyed by Bandar, the crown prince said, according to a Saudi official's account: "I reject this extraordinary, un-American bias whereby the blood of an Israeli child is more expensive and holy than the blood of a Palestinian child. I reject people who say when you kill a Palestinian, it is defense; when a Palestinian kills an Israeli, it's a terrorist act." He also referred to the scene he saw on television of the Israeli soldier putting his boot on the head of a Palestinian woman.

In reply, a Saudi official recounted, Bush said he believes the blood of innocent people is the same -- Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian or Muslim. He rejected the humiliation of individuals, which Abdullah took as a response to his comment about the Israeli soldier's boot. "Suddenly, what came through in that letter was the humane part of George W.," said a senior Saudi official.

It is impossible to say what might have happened if Bush had not so quickly mollified the crown prince at the end of August. According to well-placed sources, the Saudis had conveyed to the United States their intention to convene an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders to offer full support to the Palestinians. They alluded to the possibility of ending all law enforcement and intelligence cooperation with the United States -- of which there had been a great deal. And they signaled their intention to reconsider the Saudi-U.S. military relationship.

Abdullah made this last threat virtually explicit. On Aug. 24, the Saudi chief of staff, Gen. Salih Ali bin Muhayya, arrived in Washington for a high-level review of Saudi-U.S. military collaboration. On the 25th, when he spoke to Bandar by telephone, Abdullah ordered that Salih return immediately to Riyadh, without meeting any Americans. He also ordered a delegation of about 40 senior Saudi officers who were about to leave for Washington to get off their plane. The annual review of military relations was canceled.

"You don't cancel visits like this on the day before," said a senior adviser to the crown prince. "It was a big, big event, and we downplayed it completely." In fact, the cancellation received no public attention at all. But it shocked the Pentagon, according to a senior Defense Department official who had expected to join the meetings with the Saudis.

Bush's letter transformed his reputation in the small circle of Saudis who run their country. Before the letter, these people had come to the conclusion that Bush was a lightweight -- "goofy," as one of them put it. After the letter, "he was strong, judicious, deliberate. . . . His reputation went from rock bottom to sky high."

Abdullah decided to share his correspondence with Bush -- his message delivered by Bandar, which filled 25 pages, and Bush's two-page reply -- with other Arab leaders, including the presidents of Egypt and Syria and the king of Jordan. He summoned Arafat, who was in South Africa, to Riyadh to read it.

According to Saudi officials, they extracted from Arafat a written pledge to satisfy Bush's demands for what Arafat had to do to revive the peace talks, and they sent it back to Washington with their own enthusiastic reply to Bush's letter. The crown prince sent Bandar back to Washington to try to convert the letter into policy and action, first by urging the president to say in public what he had told the Saudis in his letter.

Bandar was convinced that Bush could not have adopted the positions outlined in his letter in just 36 hours. "This must have been something . . . that the administration was thinking about, that they just didn't share with everybody [but] were waiting for the right time," he said. But before he could pursue the matter, he needed to patch things up with U.S. officials. A knowledgeable source quoted American officials as telling Bandar when he returned to Washington, "Hey, you guys scared us." And Bandar reportedly replied: "The hell with you -- we scared ourselves."

On Friday, Sept. 7, Bandar told U.S. officials that Saudi Arabia was "pleased and grateful," as one official put it, to discover that it had misread the Bush administration's attitude toward the Middle East. Saudi Arabia would continue to try to protect U.S. interests, he promised. The Americans indicated a willingness to pursue a new Mideast initiative immediately, Saudi officials said -- a sharp departure from the administration's policy for seven months.

Over the weekend of Sept. 8 and 9, officials of the two countries discussed what should happen next: a speech by Bush, or by Powell, or perhaps both? There was also discussion of a Bush-Arafat meeting at the United Nations later in September, an important point for the Saudis, who were pleased that Bush seemed willing to have the meeting. Powell left for a previously scheduled trip to Latin America on Monday, Sept. 10, with these decisions still pending.

Even without the final decisions, Bandar was euphoric. After months in what he called "a yellow mood" over the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, "suddenly I felt the same feeling I had as we were going to Madrid [to the peace conference that followed the Gulf War in 1991], that we really were going to have a major initiative here that could save all of us from ourselves -- mostly -- and from each other."

So "the happiest man in the world that night, on Monday night, was Bandar bin Sultan. I was in the [indoor] swimming pool [of the McLean residence], smoking a cigar. I gave myself a day off because I worked the whole weekend. I had been to Saudi Arabia . . . out with the [Bush] response, back with our response. I worked on the weekend up to 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning. . . . I worked all Monday. And I said to my office, Tuesday I'm taking the day off."

Tuesday was Sept. 11. Instead of a day off, Bandar got the worst crisis of his career. Dreams of a new Mideast peace initiative evaporated. The realization that most of the hijackers were Saudis "fell on me . . . like the whole house collapsed over my head," Bandar said later. He couldn't imagine a way to "do more damage or worse damage to Islam or to Saudi Arabia."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

Prince Bandar, the ambassador, delivered Riyadh's message.Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, kisses Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, a key backer, at the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York.Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confers with President Bush. After Sharon's 2001 election, the Saudis pressed the United States bring Israel back to the peace talks.Of the Sept. 11 attacks, Prince Bandar said he couldn't imagine a way to "do more damage . . . to Islam or to Saudi Arabia."