Congress, White House at Odds Over Saudi Arabia

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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill accusing Saudi Arabia (search) of being at the center of terror funding say the White House is not doing enough to address the threats from that country.

"The administration has more faith in the Saudis than I do," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Fox News on Tuesday. "I think that the Saudis have such a checkered history when it comes to the funding of terrorist groups that I would prefer our government take stronger action."

Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (search), held a classified hearing Tuesday to hear from Treasury, State and FBI officials about cooperation in efforts to track terror financing.

The Bush administration has maintained that the longstanding friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia continues unwithered, based on mutual security and oil interests.

“I’ve got an absolute sense [from the Saudis] that there are no holds barred in going after the money and the terrorists,” Treasury Secretary John W. Snow told reporters after a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

The Saudis have been “very good partners in helping us go after the people in the Al Qaeda organization,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in a televised interview last week.

That sense of partnership has been quite different on Capitol Hill. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has emerged as a leading critic of Saudi Arabia and has urged the Bush administration to get tough with the country. Concerns have also come from Republican senators, including Jon Kyl of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

“This administration has been somewhat insulating its foreign policy from popular concerns, but Congress is much more susceptible to public pressure,” CATO Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow said, explaining the difference in attitudes toward the Saudis.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, Schumer railed against Saudi Arabia for funding radical Wahhabi Islamic groups throughout the Middle East and in Pakistan. Wahhabi is Saudi Arabia's state religion. Wahhabi charities have been accused of contributing to both Al Qaeda and the Palestinian terror network Hamas.

“The Saudis continue aggressively to export this intolerant and violent form of Islam Wahhabism (search) to Muslims across the globe,” Kyl added during that same hearing.

For decades, the U.S. and Saudi governments have had friendly relations. But public opinion of the Saudis has soured since it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals.

Lawmakers are also concerned about the slow response by Saudi Arabia to terrorism inside its own borders and the Saudi government's refusal to allow American authorities to speak with the families of the Sept. 11 attackers.

Since a triple bombing against American targets in Saudi Arabia in May, the Saudi government has been more cooperative. It has allowed American investigators to collect DNA from the homes of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The Saudis have also detained more than 200 terror suspects since the May bombings, including two who were arrested on Tuesday after a gun battle with Saudi police.

Specter suggested that more pressure hasn't been put on the Saudis because the State Department wants to protect its ally for diplomatic and oil reasons.

Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, and has been providing oil to the United States since 1933, one year after the modern kingdom was created.

In 2002, the United States was Saudi Arabia’s top trade partner, with 18.7 percent of its exports going to America and 11.2 percent of Saudi imports coming from the United States, according to the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Last year, almost 17 percent of U.S. oil imports came from Saudi Arabia, ranking it second behind Canada and just ahead of Mexico and Venezuela. With its strong infrastructure, the kingdom is also best poised to expand oil production should disruptions occur in other parts of the world, such as when Venezuelan workers went on strike earlier this year.

"Saudi Arabia is likely to remain the world's largest oil producer for the foreseeable future," the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration states in its country report. "Saudi Arabia is eager to maintain and even expand its market share in the United States for a variety of economic and strategic reasons."

Heritage Foundation (search ) Middle East expert Jim Phillips said that despite the availability of other oil sources, "if something did happen to Saudi oil, the whole world would suffer."

"If all Saudi oil was taken off the market, oil prices would skyrocket, probably more than quadruple,” Phillips said.

But other experts point out that America is not dependent on Saudi oil and risks of oil supply disruptions are "overstated."

"Quite frankly, they need the money more than we need the oil. They’re not in a position to boycott us and selective boycotts are virtually impossible in the international marketplace,” Bandow said, adding that the U.S. could assert its other interests without endangering its energy supply.

Analysts also say that if oil contracts were to dry up, the Saudi economy would collapse and societal problems that can be disguised with oil money would be laid bare.

The Saudi royal family needs oil money to buy protection from the more extreme elements in Saudi society. A temporary disruption to the Saudi oil supply could result in serious instability and jeopardize the royal family's status, said Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at New York University (search).

“What could they possibly do with their oil, drink it? They’re going to have to sell it,” Ben-Meir said.