Confidence shaken by link to attacks; Confused Saudis angry with U.S., doubt evidence
With as many as 15 Saudis numbered among the 19 hijackers in last month's terror attacks, the mood in this deeply conservative Islamic kingdom has lurched between genuine horror, profound embarrassment, shame, suppressed glee and--increasingly--resentment and bald denial.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is visiting the region, is expected to receive the carefully calibrated show of support that the Saudi monarchy has perfected through years of balancing its American friendship with its people's mistrust of U.S. policy.
But beyond the gates of King Fahd's opulent palaces in Riyadh, where the diplomats are making the requisite show of unity, Saudi Arabia's streets are steeped in angst and confusion--an extraordinary occurrence in a society guided by the iron absolutes of one of the strictest forms of Islam in the world.
"Most of us have absolutely no clue how Saudis could have contributed to such a tragedy," said Saad Asswailini, a professor at King Khalid University in Abha, a southern city where several of the alleged hijackers lived.
"Ours is a unique situation because of our complicated relationship with America," Asswailini said, noting that despite its status as the birthplace of Islam, the insular desert kingdom is now dotted with Pizza Huts and crisscrossed by freeways cloned from those in the United States, right down to the green-and-white highway signs.
"The enormity of the crime has unsettled most mainstream Saudis," he said. "So we escape our sense of guilt by filling our days with conspiracy theories."
For weeks, tales have circulated in Saudi newspapers blaming Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, for masterminding the U.S. attacks to incite hatred toward Arabs. According to one rumor, some 4,000 Jews were warned out of the doomed World Trade Center towers minutes before the buildings were destroyed. Another wishful theory holds that all the Saudi citizens fingered by the FBI were killed in the fighting in Chechnya, and that their identities were stolen.
And the government is so sensitive about the Saudi origins of Osama bin Laden, the Afghan-based terrorist accused of orchestrating the attacks, that they have effectively ordered that he no longer be called a Saudi.
"That point is irrelevant now," Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister, berated journalists this week, noting angrily that bin Laden had been stripped of his citizenship in the early 1990s for his dissident views.
"The Saudis are only a few generations removed from their tribal roots, and that makes them incredibly proud," said a U.S. government official familiar with the region. "Aside from their fundamentalist fringe, most are deeply embarrassed by their countrymen's involvement in this thing. And Saudis hate to be embarrassed."
Islamic experts and diplomats say that the reasons for the large numbers of Saudis implicated in the hijackings aren't completely understood. Bin Laden's old connections to the country could hint that his network is still active in Saudi Arabia, some say. Others point out that oil-rich Saudi Arabia sent thousands of self-financed holy warriors to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, creating a strong legacy of jihad.
But Saudis are closing ranks against the evidence in the U.S. attack, and their growing sense of denial has only been fueled by the early misidentification of several suspects.
While the FBI's confusion over Arabic names and identities was largely ignored in the American press, each blunder has made huge news in Saudi Arabia, casting doubt on U.S. intentions and convincing many Saudis that their country has been slandered.
"I want to think all this is a mistake," said a bewildered Khalid al-Mihammadi, 24, a computer programmer from Mecca who was named wrongfully in an early list of hijackers released by the U.S. Justice Department. "We are America's friends, and they do this to us. It isn't fair."
Al-Mihammadi, who spent nine months studying English in the U.S., said he was watching television at home when shaken friends saw his photograph on the news and began to call to see if he was still alive.
No trust of U.S.
"It's impossible for us to believe [the United States] anymore," said Taha Alghamdi, a salesman in Jeddah whose brother Saeed was mistakenly confused with another man by the same name who hijacked United Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
"What sort of intelligence agency doesn't know that there are thousands of Saeed Alghamdis in Saudi Arabia?" Alghamdi said. "It is like accusing Tom from New York."
Like others, Alghamdi said his family would be pursuing legal action against the U.S. government for defamation.
Meanwhile, just as some Americans are sadly pondering how their country could have ignited the fury behind such terrible attacks, many Saudis are quietly reassessing how a profound misinterpretation of their religion, with compassion as its central tenet, has done likewise.
"In some ways this tragedy has caused similar types of inward thinking for both our peoples," said scholar Asswailini.
"Maybe more Americans will begin to ponder the consequences of their foreign policy," he said, "and more Saudis to question the religious fundamentalism that is growing here."