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Saudi Arabia may be subtly shifting its stance concerning a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, reports Stratfor, the global intelligence company. If so, even tacit political backing by Riyadh would make U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf considerably easier.
London's Daily Telegraph reported Sept. 6 that U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcons and British Royal Air Force Tornado F3s based in Saudi Arabia provided air cover during a bombing mission against Iraq. Although the mission itself was widely reported, the claim that the aircraft departed from Saudi Arabia has not been picked up elsewhere, and officials have neither confirmed nor denied that claim.
If true, the use of Saudi-stationed aircraft to support bombing missions against Iraq would signal a dramatic shift in Saudi policy. Riyadh has refused to allow U.S. planes based in the kingdom to conduct bombing raids against Iraq, or even, as the Washington Post reported in January, to transit Saudi airspace en route to or from Iraq. The government has staunchly opposed a U.S. war against its neighbor, yet it has been curiously silent in recent days – even while the United States reportedly is building up troops and equipment in the region.
Washington repeatedly has declared its intention to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Doing so would be considerably easier with political and logistical support from other Persian Gulf states and especially from political heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
Another indicator of a potential shift can be found in surging domestic patronage. The Saudi Council of Ministers announced Sept. 9 that it would sell a 30 percent stake in the state-owned Saudi Telecom Co., with two-thirds of the issue reserved for Saudi citizens. Furthermore, English-language daily Arab News reported Sept. 10 that the government also will be providing financial assistance to unemployed Saudis, unofficially estimated at more than 20 percent of the Saudi population.
Internally, the ruling House of Saud faces dissent from a large youth population, a number of wealthy elites in places like Jeddah and radical groups, which allegedly are growing in the southwest and in Qassim province. Moreover, U.S. forces that remain stationed in Saudi Arabia are a high-profile target for dissidents, who see them as an additional security guarantor for the House of Saud.
By offering a package of financial incentives, the government may be hoping to head off a surge in domestic unrest and dissent stirred by a U.S. war with Iraq. Even if Riyadh does not support the war directly, it may give a tacit nod to cooperation by Kuwait and Qatar in a U.S.-led attack.