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Dismissing suggestions that military cooperation may end, Abdullah told Time: "We don't think about raising this issue at all." The reality is more complicated: although the alliance was in the vital strategic interests of both nations for decades, its outlook is somewhat uncertain. U.S. and Saudi officials tell TIME that future use of caoc remains unclear, and that talks are on the cards to redefine the U.S. military mission in the Kingdom.
Both sides generally agree that U.S. forces are needed to deter another invasion of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and to keep up the pressure on Iraq. That is in line with the traditional basis for the strong relationship: the Saudis provide oil and the U.S. provides security. Some U.S. military men feel the Saudis "owe us" a reference to Operation Desert Storm saving Saudi skin back in 1991. But the Saudis are fearful that a carte blanche could entangle the Kingdom in American wars against Iraq or even Iran, making popular opposition to the U.S. military presence a hot political issue which, despite bin Laden's rhetoric, it has failed to become. "Why do we owe you?" asks a Saudi official. "We are a partner who needs to be consulted. We can't have the U.S. military thinking that any time they go to war, Saudi Arabia will be the command-and-control center. Somebody has to put a brake on this."
Abdullah is worried about U.S. unilateralism. "America cannot be the sole policeman of the world," he says. The Palestinian problem still rankles, too. In an oblique warning to Washington, he says that Arafat's removal "will shake the Arab and Muslim world and destroy the credibility of anybody who was involved in this move." But Abdullah's peace initiative, which Arab diplomats say could be considered at next month's Arab Summit in Beirut, is a sign that he's ready to play a constructive role. In a "statement of vision" being pushed by Saudi diplomats as a "signal to the Israeli people," Abdullah suggests that Arab states collectively agree to a full peace with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other occupied Arab territories. "If Saudi Arabia is willing to reach out to Israel to talk about peace and normalization of relations, then that is significant and positive step," says U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
If Abdullah's relations with the U.S. are complicated, that's nothing compared to his domestic conundrum. The Kingdom's Islamic establishment had free rein during Fahd's years an attempt to curry favor after zealots seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and hard-liners criticized the hosting of U.S. troops for the Gulf War. As a result, the Islamic establishment has grown in size and strength to the point that Saudi leaders are terrified of confronting it head on. The religious sheiks give the al Saud Dynasty a vital cloak of protection against political opponents. So does its responsibility for hosting the annual Hajj pilgramage to Mecca, which got underway last week with some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world.
The Crown Prince is probably correct when he says that bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network poses no immediate threat to Saudi stability. But the long-term danger is creating a bin Laden Generation: legions of kids schooled in puritanical Islam, lacking jobs and harboring hatred for the U.S. and Israel and for their own rulers too. "There is a clash between tradition and modernity," says Saudi researcher Mai Yamani. "Vast wealth has been spent on education, but it is a population that cannot function in this demanding global economy."
Despite his relatively progressive instincts, it remains to be seen whether Abdullah will succeed in pushing his reform agenda past Islamic opposition. His efforts to bring the Kingdom into the World Trade Organization, for example, could help create jobs unemployment is 15%. But the obstacles to membership include the country's slow progress in enacting commercial and insurance laws over the objections of Islamic traditionalists, who regard them as an affront to Shari'a, the rules of life handed down by God.