NEW YORK – The Bush administration insists its relationship with Saudi Arabia is good, but concerns swirling this week are giving some people pause when it comes to taking the White House's word.
Experts cut to the chase Tuesday when they criticized the White House, saying that the Bush administration needs to stop downplaying very real concerns regarding the Arab kingdom.
"The White House and the State Department keep whistling past the graveyard when it comes to the Saudi Arabia relationship," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute. "An arm's length relationship is the appropriate one for the U.S. with Saudi Arabia."
U.S. officials are investigating whether members of the Saudi royal family knowingly funded some of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Meanwhile, some in Congress are calling for more Saudis to be fingerprinted when they enter the United States and to put be on terrorist watch lists as needed. The White House may give Saudi Arabia a deadline to crack down on terrorist financiers.
But all the while, the White House maintains its relationship with the desert nation is strong and that it considers Saudi Arabia a "good partner" in the war on terror.
"The president believes that Saudi Arabia is a good partner in the war on terrorism, and they are a good partner who can and should do more with us so we can together fight terrorism. And that's a message that is repeated to many nations around the world, not just to Saudi Arabia," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday.
Yet with 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers being Saudi nationals and a heightened sensitivity by Americans to anti-Americanism abroad, Carpenter said the lid could blow unless measures are taken.
"One of the problems is, we have some things we need to worry about mixed in with a number of other things we don't need to worry about," Carpenter said. With U.S. perception of the country changing since Sept. 11, "all that's going to do is guarantee when estrangement comes, it's going to be nasty on both sides."
Some analysts warn, however, that over-reaction could be more damaging.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said moderate responses are needed for moderate controversies.
"Saudi Arabia is a big and important country, which both has extensive petroleum reserves and also spreads a lot of money around the Middle East and beyond," Alterman said. "It's like any other relationship that you have to modulate, how much you hope that kindness will be reciprocated by kindness and how much you think you have to be kind to get results."
Among some of the more controversial situations is the exclusion of Saudi Arabian men from a list of visitors whom the Justice Department says must be fingerprinted and registered while they are in the United States.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., complained Tuesday that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is creating a double standard for Saudis and other Arab nationals who enter the country.
"They've simply not been good citizens when it's come to fighting on the war on terrorism," Weiner told Fox News. "I think asking these basic things are smart given the fact the Saudis have an excellent record when it comes to exporting terror to us."
"Let's call this what it is — Saudi Arabia has been one of those hot spots for exporting terrorism."
White House officials confirm that the administration is considering new plans to choke off money to terrorist organizations — in a host of countries, not just Saudi Arabia — but that it expects more from the royal family. One plan suggests that the Saudi government crack down on terrorist supporters in 90 days or face unilateral action from the United States.
Some groups are also assailing an Islam library project funded in part by a wealthy Saudi prince.
The Washington-based Free Congress Foundation says the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Library Project, which aims to put books and videos on Islam in the nation's 16,000 public libraries, is just another example of Saudi propaganda.
"The books on the list present a highly misleading view of Islam, spraypainting over the religion's long history of animosity to Western values — including tolerance and peace — that have been forged out of our Judeo-Christian heritage," said Free Congress Chairman Paul Weyrich.
Free Congress wants the American Library Association to pass a resolution saying public libraries are free to purchase individual books on CAIR's list, but that its members shouldn't feel compelled to buy a package funded in part by Saudi interests. The group wants to make sure that books it views as more accurately portraying Islam are also available.
But CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said many of the books are not authored by Muslims and some materials are produced by organizations such as PBS and ABC News' Nightline.
"Believe me, when we picked these things, we picked them with an eye toward this kind of criticism, it was inevitable," Hooper said. "What they refer to as propaganda really means they object to anyone offering a positive portrayal of Islam."
Hooper said CAIR takes money from individuals, not governments, but critics are having a field day with the fact that Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud donated $500,000 to CAIR, most of which is going toward the Library Project.
Alwaleed is the same prince who tried to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund after the Sept. 11 attacks but was refused by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani because the donation came with a letter saying America "should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."
Rob Sobhani, a U.S. foreign policy professor at Georgetown University, said that Saudi Arabia's "number one loyalty" is to the Muslim world, whether that means giving funding, moral support, government or private-sector support to Muslim causes.
He added that the U.S. government will always put up a smokescreen when it comes to Saudi Arabia because of its oil interests.
"Until American consumers don't want to drive SUVs, we will be hostage to Saudi Arabia. So the American consumers and the American public can't have it both ways," Sobhani said.
"SUV probably stands for Saudi Arabia's ultimate victory."