A Saudi In The Hot Seat

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Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz must have privately cheered last week after the U.S. announced that thousands of its troops stationed in his country would soon be gone. Their posting has long been a prickly political matter for the Saudis and has provided a fat target for al-Qaeda's propaganda. Osama bin Laden considered the foreign military presence sacrilegious and made the removal of U.S. soldiers a central objective of his holy war against the West.

But the Prince's bin Laden — related troubles may not be over, and not only because the terrorist leader is still gunning for his family. Sultan is one of scores of defendants in a $1 trillion lawsuit brought by relatives of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The plaintiffs allege that Sultan made large donations to Islamic charities that supported the Sept. 11 hijackers. Sultan's attorneys at the law firm Baker Botts, where former Secretary of State James Baker is partner, counter that Sultan's contributions came from government coffers and were disbursed by the Prince in his role as a Saudi official. If the latter is proved, say his attorneys, the Prince would be shielded from legal action under U.S. law.

But the situation is not so clear cut. The al Sauds are often accused of running their country like a family business, controlling virtually every official post. Separating private contributions from official ones may prove difficult. A review of Saudi official declarations by TIME revealed half a dozen references to Sultan's donations as being "personal." The Saudi Press Agency, a wing of the Ministry of Information, lists $266,000 donated by Sultan to the International Islamic Relief Organization as a "personal" contribution. U.S. and Canadian authorities say they have linked this charity to terrorism. This tie could prove troublesome to Sultan: as chairman of a board that kept track of Saudi charities, he was in a position to know about the actions of this organization. There's a good chance the plaintiffs will point that out.