DUBAI and BRUSSELS – In the improbable event that this was a John Woo movie, the face-off to finish all face-offs would be between Osama bin Laden and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The plot has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. It may be convoluted, but essentially it is not very hard to follow. Although a global audience may not be aware of it, bin Laden the villain knows deep inside how dangerous an enemy good guy Prince Abdullah may be. Because if Prince Abdullah’s strategy succeeds, bin Laden’s master plan for the ultimate Muslim revolution becomes totally irrelevant.

Psychoanalysis – Freudian, Lacanian or even the Paris sidewalk cafe variety – would have a field day comparing notes on these two main characters. It all starts with mom. Both bin Laden and Prince Abdullah are the only sons of their Syrian mothers. Bin Laden’s mother is reportedly 100 percent Syrian, while Prince Abdullah’s is only partly so. Bin Laden as well as Prince Abdullah are also in conflict with their half-brothers – more conservative, more “Saudi” and more pro-American in both cases.

Prince Abdullah, diplomatic sources reveal, may be a good Muslim, but he is also a man who tolerates different expressions of Islam. He is almost a hedonist, by Islamic standards. There are plenty of Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals in his entourage, and he is working hard to improve relations with both Syria and Iraq.

Bin Laden on the other hand is austere and ascetic, almost a hermit (which he was, in his Afghan caves): jihad, his brand of violent jihad, is imprinted on his soul; it’s his way to self-expression, it’s his redemption.

Prince Abdullah is in his 70s, bin Laden is in his 40s. In terms of political experience, Prince Abdullah is extremely impressed by Arab nationalism as personalized by Nasser in Egypt. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is enamored with the Iranian Shi’ite revolution of 1979, as personalized by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Prince Abdullah’s dream is to turn the Arab peninsula into an open house for all of the Arab world – including Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Sudanese and, the ultimate prize, even Shi’ite Iranians (who are Persians, not Arabs; but they remain fervent Muslims anyway). The sine qua non is that all the Arab neighbors – plus of course Iran – practice moderate Islam: diplomatic sources call it an ideal mix of Arab nationalism and Saudi Islam – but without the hardcore, ultra-conservative wahhabi element. Prince Abdullah has been working on this idea ceaselessly for the past two years: he believes that if it succeeds, the result is a Saudi Arabia which would never have to rely again on America for its safety.

He wants Saudi wealth to revert to the benefit of all Arabs (a Saudi bank, basing its figures on a Merrill Lynch study, estimates that the kingdom has at least US$750 billion outside its borders, four to five times its GNP: 60 percent is invested in the US, 30 percent in Europe). He dreams that one day all Arabs will forge a common front to face the Americans – and Israel – but without having to go to war.

Prince Abdullah fights on many crucial fronts – and the results have been uneven at best. His Middle East peace offer – Israel retreats to pre-1967 borders in Palestine in exchange of being recognized by the whole Arab world – was lauded everywhere, even by the Arabs: but Israeli leader Ariel Sharon responded by smashing Palestine.

In spite of his excellent relationship with the ultra-sharp Iraqi Christian, Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz – a character not unlike the fascinating grand viziers of Arab literature – Prince Abdullah simply could not get Iraq to back the Arab family idea: but then he got a break at the Beirut summit in March, when Baghdad fully recognized Kuwait’s independence in exchange for overwhelming Arab support against an American strike. Not even Allah knows how consistent this “support” will be when George W Bush’s techno-cowboys start getting ready to slouch toward Baghdad. The American military is already talking about launching strikes from Jordan.

Prince Abdullah’s influence was also manifest in the firing of Prince Turki – the secret service supremo – three weeks before September 11. He even managed to have his decision supported by his reluctant half-brothers – King Fahd (incapacitated since 1995) and the Defense Minister, Prince Sultan. Prince Turki was the man behind the endless string of money bags that helped finance the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He was being blamed, among other things, for failing to solve the puzzle concerning an assassination attempt against Prince Abdullah, and for his bold reconciliation moves toward Iran. But he was also blamed for not being able to control the Taliban any more, or to convince them to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan. European intelligence sources are sure that bin Laden controls at least one Saudi prince – if not at least half of the ruling circle of power. Bin Laden’s prince could have been Prince Turki. They went to school together. And it was Prince Turki who sent bin Laden to Afghanistan.

Prince Abdullah keeps fighting hard for the political survival of the discredited Saud dynasty – which is now regarded as practically a pariah in Washington. His dearest wish would be to witness an American departure from the peninsula, slowly but surely. A few sound minds in Washington may have considered that such a departure would instantly melt away any appeal of bin Laden’s Islamic revolution. There is intense speculation in Middle East diplomatic circles that the prince will now try to convince the Americans to fold their bases in exchange for a prominent Saudi role as the guardian of a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel, and as an economic powerhouse benefiting all of the Arab world.

This dream scenario would mean the triumph of Arab nationalism – a la Abdullah – a sort of embryonic democracy that could have its public expression in what Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network embodies today. European diplomatic sources believe this semi-democratic Arab world certainly would not be allied to the US – it would rather strike a closer relationship with Japan and Korea, and with the enlarged European Union.

On the opposite end of Prince Abdullah’s large and ambitious spectrum, bin Laden long ago realized that maybe he could upstage the non-exportable Shi’ite Iranian revolution by offering to the Muslim world his own brand of a Sunni, conservative, super revolution: a revolution by the sword. It’s no less ironic that he came to this conclusion by the hands – and most of all the mind – of an Egyptian (definitely not a friend of Nasser’s): the redoubtable “Surgeon” Ayman al-Zawahiri. So, to woo hardcore Iranian mullahs, bin Laden had to do everything in his power to erase the image of himself as a rich Saudi working for the benefit of the Americans during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

As is now well known, bin Laden wants to restore an Islamic caliphate. Afghanistan for him was just a sideshow – a convenient base. What really matters in his grand design are the connections that he has been able to build over these past few years. For example, al-Qaeda’s priceless connections inside the Pakistani army and the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence; al-Qaeda’s influence over the Yemeni intelligence service; and the privileged connections with key ulemas (clerics) in Saudi Arabia and with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Inside Saudi Arabia, bin Laden plays on two key fronts. The Nejd region is in the center of Saudi Arabia, around Riyadh: this is where the founder of the regime, Ibn Saud, comes from. The rest of the kingdom is deeply anti-Nejd. The consensual attitude used to be secular and anti-wahhabi, but bin Laden and his operatives are trying their best to turn it into hardcore Islamist. And bin Laden’s pious Islamic credentials remain a major hit with the ulemas: a substantial majority are pro-bin Laden and regard the pro-American stance of the Saudi family as the plague.

The manner in which both bin Laden and Prince Abdullah court Iran is absolutely essential to preview the possible next moves in their showdown by proxy. Asia Times Online learned in Iran that President Khatami reportedly gets along extremely well with Prince Abdullah. The prince hoped that his alliance with Iran – concluded at the end of 2000 – would lead to the absolute irrelevance of an American presence in the Persian Gulf. But it didn’t turn out this way – and the winner, for the moment, is bin Laden.

With a healthy Saudi-Iranian cooperation in place and the Americans on the way out, there would be no more tension inside Saudi Arabia. This means that ultimately a revolutionary bin Laden could not play the card of whipping up antagonism against the Americans inside Saudi Arabia. Prince Abdullah definitely does not want a new caliphate. On the contrary: revolution is the last thing on his mind. He wants to reinforce secular states such as Iraq and Syria. He is regarded by European intelligence circles as an Arab patriot. He wants a winning Arab world. He is sick of so many failures. The abominable failure of both Baath parties – in Syria and Iraq. The interminable failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And of course the failure of Saudi oil wealth to reach all of the citizens of the kingdom (in 20 years, the annual oil revenue per Saudi has collapsed to US$2,600 from a high of $24,000).

A United Arab Emirates businessman points to a crucial fact: even Saudis who hated bin Laden were against handing him over to the Americans. Virtually no one wanted him to fall. Otherwise he would have fallen a long time ago. Although Prince Abdullah and the Saud family dwell in a rarified world off limits to foreigners (especially infidels), it’s fair to assume that the prince and the family are mulling the only two options left. Bin Laden’s revolutionary folly may lead al-Qaeda to a spectacular debacle. Or it may be the beginning of the end for the House of Saud. Bin Laden has raised a lot dissent in the heart of the Saudi court. The Saudi opposition is totally pro-bin Laden. And a revolution in neighboring Yemen could happen at any time – with an overspill effect on Saudi Arabia. At least for the moment, patient, tolerant Prince Abdullah is not laughing.

Psychoanalysis – Freudian, Lacanian or even the Paris sidewalk cafe variety – would have a field day comparing notes on these two main characters. It all starts with mom. Both bin Laden and Prince Abdullah are the only sons of their Syrian mothers. Bin Laden’s mother is reportedly 100 percent Syrian, while Prince Abdullah’s is only partly so. Bin Laden as well as Prince Abdullah are also in conflict with their half-brothers – more conservative, more “Saudi” and more pro-American in both cases.

Prince Abdullah, diplomatic sources reveal, may be a good Muslim, but he is also a man who tolerates different expressions of Islam. He is almost a hedonist, by Islamic standards. There are plenty of Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals in his entourage, and he is working hard to improve relations with both Syria and Iraq.

Bin Laden on the other hand is austere and ascetic, almost a hermit (which he was, in his Afghan caves): jihad, his brand of violent jihad, is imprinted on his soul; it’s his way to self-expression, it’s his redemption.

Prince Abdullah is in his 70s, bin Laden is in his 40s. In terms of political experience, Prince Abdullah is extremely impressed by Arab nationalism as personalized by Nasser in Egypt. Bin Laden, on the other hand, is enamored with the Iranian Shi’ite revolution of 1979, as personalized by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Prince Abdullah’s dream is to turn the Arab peninsula into an open house for all of the Arab world – including Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Sudanese and, the ultimate prize, even Shi’ite Iranians (who are Persians, not Arabs; but they remain fervent Muslims anyway). The sine qua non is that all the Arab neighbors – plus of course Iran – practice moderate Islam: diplomatic sources call it an ideal mix of Arab nationalism and Saudi Islam – but without the hardcore, ultra-conservative wahhabi element. Prince Abdullah has been working on this idea ceaselessly for the past two years: he believes that if it succeeds, the result is a Saudi Arabia which would never have to rely again on America for its safety.

He wants Saudi wealth to revert to the benefit of all Arabs (a Saudi bank, basing its figures on a Merrill Lynch study, estimates that the kingdom has at least US$750 billion outside its borders, four to five times its GNP: 60 percent is invested in the US, 30 percent in Europe). He dreams that one day all Arabs will forge a common front to face the Americans – and Israel – but without having to go to war.

Prince Abdullah fights on many crucial fronts – and the results have been uneven at best. His Middle East peace offer – Israel retreats to pre-1967 borders in Palestine in exchange of being recognized by the whole Arab world – was lauded everywhere, even by the Arabs: but Israeli leader Ariel Sharon responded by smashing Palestine.

In spite of his excellent relationship with the ultra-sharp Iraqi Christian, Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz – a character not unlike the fascinating grand viziers of Arab literature – Prince Abdullah simply could not get Iraq to back the Arab family idea: but then he got a break at the Beirut summit in March, when Baghdad fully recognized Kuwait’s independence in exchange for overwhelming Arab support against an American strike. Not even Allah knows how consistent this “support” will be when George W Bush’s techno-cowboys start getting ready to slouch toward Baghdad. The American military is already talking about launching strikes from Jordan.

Prince Abdullah’s influence was also manifest in the firing of Prince Turki – the secret service supremo – three weeks before September 11. He even managed to have his decision supported by his reluctant half-brothers – King Fahd (incapacitated since 1995) and the Defense Minister, Prince Sultan. Prince Turki was the man behind the endless string of money bags that helped finance the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He was being blamed, among other things, for failing to solve the puzzle concerning an assassination attempt against Prince Abdullah, and for his bold reconciliation moves toward Iran. But he was also blamed for not being able to control the Taliban any more, or to convince them to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan. European intelligence sources are sure that bin Laden controls at least one Saudi prince – if not at least half of the ruling circle of power. Bin Laden’s prince could have been Prince Turki. They went to school together. And it was Prince Turki who sent bin Laden to Afghanistan.

Prince Abdullah keeps fighting hard for the political survival of the discredited Saud dynasty – which is now regarded as practically a pariah in Washington. His dearest wish would be to witness an American departure from the peninsula, slowly but surely. A few sound minds in Washington may have considered that such a departure would instantly melt away any appeal of bin Laden’s Islamic revolution. There is intense speculation in Middle East diplomatic circles that the prince will now try to convince the Americans to fold their bases in exchange for a prominent Saudi role as the guardian of a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel, and as an economic powerhouse benefiting all of the Arab world.

This dream scenario would mean the triumph of Arab nationalism – a la Abdullah – a sort of embryonic democracy that could have its public expression in what Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network embodies today. European diplomatic sources believe this semi-democratic Arab world certainly would not be allied to the US – it would rather strike a closer relationship with Japan and Korea, and with the enlarged European Union.

On the opposite end of Prince Abdullah’s large and ambitious spectrum, bin Laden long ago realized that maybe he could upstage the non-exportable Shi’ite Iranian revolution by offering to the Muslim world his own brand of a Sunni, conservative, super revolution: a revolution by the sword. It’s no less ironic that he came to this conclusion by the hands – and most of all the mind – of an Egyptian (definitely not a friend of Nasser’s): the redoubtable “Surgeon” Ayman al-Zawahiri. So, to woo hardcore Iranian mullahs, bin Laden had to do everything in his power to erase the image of himself as a rich Saudi working for the benefit of the Americans during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

As is now well known, bin Laden wants to restore an Islamic caliphate. Afghanistan for him was just a sideshow – a convenient base. What really matters in his grand design are the connections that he has been able to build over these past few years. For example, al-Qaeda’s priceless connections inside the Pakistani army and the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence; al-Qaeda’s influence over the Yemeni intelligence service; and the privileged connections with key ulemas (clerics) in Saudi Arabia and with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Inside Saudi Arabia, bin Laden plays on two key fronts. The Nejd region is in the center of Saudi Arabia, around Riyadh: this is where the founder of the regime, Ibn Saud, comes from. The rest of the kingdom is deeply anti-Nejd. The consensual attitude used to be secular and anti-wahhabi, but bin Laden and his operatives are trying their best to turn it into hardcore Islamist. And bin Laden’s pious Islamic credentials remain a major hit with the ulemas: a substantial majority are pro-bin Laden and regard the pro-American stance of the Saudi family as the plague.

The manner in which both bin Laden and Prince Abdullah court Iran is absolutely essential to preview the possible next moves in their showdown by proxy. Asia Times Online learned in Iran that President Khatami reportedly gets along extremely well with Prince Abdullah. The prince hoped that his alliance with Iran – concluded at the end of 2000 – would lead to the absolute irrelevance of an American presence in the Persian Gulf. But it didn’t turn out this way – and the winner, for the moment, is bin Laden.

With a healthy Saudi-Iranian cooperation in place and the Americans on the way out, there would be no more tension inside Saudi Arabia. This means that ultimately a revolutionary bin Laden could not play the card of whipping up antagonism against the Americans inside Saudi Arabia. Prince Abdullah definitely does not want a new caliphate. On the contrary: revolution is the last thing on his mind. He wants to reinforce secular states such as Iraq and Syria. He is regarded by European intelligence circles as an Arab patriot. He wants a winning Arab world. He is sick of so many failures. The abominable failure of both Baath parties – in Syria and Iraq. The interminable failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And of course the failure of Saudi oil wealth to reach all of the citizens of the kingdom (in 20 years, the annual oil revenue per Saudi has collapsed to US$2,600 from a high of $24,000).

A United Arab Emirates businessman points to a crucial fact: even Saudis who hated bin Laden were against handing him over to the Americans. Virtually no one wanted him to fall. Otherwise he would have fallen a long time ago. Although Prince Abdullah and the Saud family dwell in a rarified world off limits to foreigners (especially infidels), it’s fair to assume that the prince and the family are mulling the only two options left. Bin Laden’s revolutionary folly may lead al-Qaeda to a spectacular debacle. Or it may be the beginning of the end for the House of Saud. Bin Laden has raised a lot dissent in the heart of the Saudi court. The Saudi opposition is totally pro-bin Laden. And a revolution in neighboring Yemen could happen at any time – with an overspill effect on Saudi Arabia. At least for the moment, patient, tolerant Prince Abdullah is not laughing.

https://web.archive.org/web/20020802114530/http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/DG12Ak01.html

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