US Stance on 'Our Friends the Saudis' Under Scrutiny

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - The State Department's has come under fresh criticism over its refusal to participate in a Senate committee hearing into Saudi Arabia's alleged links to terrorism.

The Judiciary Committee hearing comes shortly before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the kingdom. Lawmakers are questioning the extent of Saudi cooperation with the U.S. in the campaign against Islamist terror.

At Tuesday's hearing, entitled "Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror, a Treasury Department official said that Saudi Arabia has worked to block funds to al Qaeda, but not to Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas.

Daniel Glaser, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, said the Treasury was concerned about the activities abroad of Saudi charities and non-governmental organizations with links to the royal family.

He could not confirm the veracity of Saudi claims about having shut down a government bank account used to fund Palestinian terrorist groups.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the Saudi government had declined to provide an official to testify at the hearing, although it did recommend a witness -- a strategic analyst who advised against "singling out" the Saudis, arguing they were making progress in curbing hateful ideology.

Later in the day, the kingdom's new ambassador to Washington issued a lengthy statement listing measures he said his government has taken, and complaining that events such as the hearing "only serve to reinforce negative misconceptions and half-truths."

"Judging by the statements made at the hearing, it appears that the members of the committee are not fully aware of the significant steps Saudi Arabia has taken in the war on terrorism and extremism, or that they chose to ignore the realities for the sake of political expediency," Prince Turki al-Faisal said.

During the briefing, several senators raised the point that the State Department was not represented, the committee having received word late the previous afternoon that no State Department witness would attend.

"It is anticipated that the secretary of state will be visiting Saudi Arabia soon, and the indications are that the State Department thought from their point of view it was not advisable to have testimony presented at this Senate hearing," said Specter.

"I regret that that decision was made," Specter added. "I think it is important to be very candid with 'our friends the Saudis.' If we're to maintain a good relationship it ought to be in a context where we both speak frankly about what the facts are."

Later, Senator Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) expressed frustration over the absence of the State Department.

"You're not the person to pick on here," he said to Treasury representative Daniel Glaser. "We should deal directly with the people who can express the views of the United States of America directly to the Saudis."

Senators on several occasions said they were sorry the State Department was not present to answer question directly.

"One of the things I would have asked Secretary Rice or her representative is: 'Is she willing to speak out strongly when she goes to Saudi Arabia?" said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat.

In the past two months, the U.S. government has twice waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia - for abusing religious freedom and human trafficking violations.

This week, the State Department issued its latest report on global religious freedom, finding once again that "religious freedom does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, and again designating it as a "country of particular concern," thus making it potentially eligible for sanctions. A 180-day waiver is in place.

A Saudi scholar and critic of the regime this week accused the department of "making excuses for the Saudi government."

The department goes easy on Saudi Arabia because "politics reigns," charged Institute for Gulf Affairs Director Ali Al-Ahmed.

Department spokesman Adam Ereli on Wednesday defended its stance on Saudi Arabia, which Rice is scheduled to visit during a trip that begins Friday in Bahrain.

"We're going to ... call it like we see it and not hold back from putting down on the table the issues and challenges that we think are important for all of us to deal with in our collective self-interest," he said.

On the issue of waiving sanctions, Ereli said those were temporary steps, and stressed that a relationship existed between the waiver and the actions the Saudis take.

"Saudi Arabia is showing - even though, as the report says, there is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia - that they are willing to address this issue, that they're willing to discuss this issue with us, that they are willing to consider actions, as opposed to other countries which refuse to engage and just tell us to go take a hike."

See also:
Time to Act Against Saudis Over Religious Persecution (Nov. 09, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow