Saudis' Next Step in Helping Probe Attacks Could Greatly Affect U.S. Relations

If there were ever a reason for frayed U.S.-Saudi relations (search) to finally snap, this week's terror bombing in Riyadh could be it.

With Americans among the dozens killed, there is a clear subtext to the disappointment in the Saudis that is emanating from Washington: Clamping down on anti-Western hatred among fundamentalists and salvaging our relationship is up to you.

In the carefully cloaked American verbiage there have been signs of impatience.

"I'm sure that in the wake of this terrible incident in Riyadh (search) that we will seek to intensify our cooperation," Condoleezza Rice (search), President Bush's national security adviser, told reporters. "We can do better -- all of us can always do better -- and we look forward to working with the Saudi government."

What sets this incident apart from past U.S.-Saudi scrapes is that now, the government in Riyadh does not have the luxury of falling back on its taciturn ways when it comes to the information it has on Islamic radicals, said Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter.

"I think this is going to intensify U.S. demands that the Saudis cut the financial umbilical cord with radical Islamic organizations. Too much of that money is finding its way into terrorist hands," Carpenter said. "The Saudis cannot continue to play both sides of the street. They have to show that they're serious about going after Islamic terrorists."

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said the two countries differ mainly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Saudis believing Americans are sometimes biased toward Israel.

"Terrorism is not an issue that splits us," he said on MSNBC. Bandar said the U.S. agreement to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia should reassure people throughout the Middle East that "America is not a colonizer, America is a friend who comes to help, and when the mission is over they go home."

Mary Jane Deeb, a Middle East expert at American University in Washington, said the measure of improved cooperation will be Saudi officials' willingness not just to share what they know, but also to take a more aggressive role in identifying and securing Western sites that could be vulnerable to attack.

"There should be more cooperation, more of a give-and-take between Saudi Arabia and the United States on security issues, on terrorism, on whatever information is gathered," Deeb said. "Also, it's a signal that the groups -- al-Qaida in particular -- that both the Saudis and Americans thought had been weakened or partially disbanded have regrouped and are planning new attacks. So, that is the danger down the road."

Saudi officials seemed aware that the onus was on them. They acknowledged there were problems with security before the attack and promised changes.

"We have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. He also said that the attacks were the work of 15 Saudis -- a stark contrast to the Saudi response in 2001 to the revelation that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi.

"I think there has been a realization that the terrorist threat is real, and could come home with a vengeance to the kingdom in Saudi Arabia as it has come home to us in the United States," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I therefore think we have their attention."

But the United States has thought it had Saudi attention before, only to be met with a frustrating run-around. After the 1996 Khobar Towers bomb attack that killed 19 American soldiers, Saudi officials mounted many obstacles that thwarted U.S. investigators.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said active Saudi participation in this investigation is crucial.

"Obviously more should have been done, because look at what happened. But hindsight is always 20/20," Roberts said. "They have to understand that this was an attack on them and us, and they have to understand that we need unfettered access, which has not been given before. And so this is a real test for them."

Daniel Benjamin, the National Security Council's counterterrorism director during the Clinton administration, said the question lies in whether the Saudis recognize they have a lot at stake, and respond accordingly.

"Rightly or wrongly, there is such a negative perception regarding Saudi cooperation," said Benjamin, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The potential for disruptions in relations is pretty great."