Troubles in the House of Saud?

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U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 23, 2006.

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The internal Saudi turmoil couldn't come at a worse time for the Bush Administration. Vice President Cheney was in Riyadh just last weekend for talks with King Abdullah. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to use the Saudi-founded Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), conceived as an economic body, as a vehicle for marshalling Sunni Arab support on regional security issues, particularly U.S. efforts to blunt Iranian ambitions. Rice has prevailed upon the original GCC members (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman) to add Jordan and Egypt to their security loop. According to a Rice aide, a working group of diplomats, including a U.S. representative, will be spun off after the new year, to hold frequent meetings and consultations.

But there have recently been some signs that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may not see eye to eye on how to stabilize the region. There has been growing speculation that King Abdullah will soon accede to pleas from leaders of Sunni tribes in Iraq — some of whom have blood ties with members of the Saudi leadership — for money for arms and armor for their own militias, especially if the U.S. were to begin to withdraw and the country fall further into chaos. And though the Bush Administration has taken issue with a recent New York Times report that King Abdullah himself told Cheney much the same thing during his recent visit to the Kingdom, there is little doubt that the Saudis are feeling pressure from their Sunni brethren in Iraq. "The tribal leaders that come to Saudi Arabia are saying, their feeling is that the [Iraqi] central government is basically completely hostage to these [Shi'ite] militias, especially this prime minister," says one Saudi-watcher. "These are tribal leaders who are not involved in the insurgency and want to salvage whatever can be salvaged in a central authority in Baghdad."

The Saudi government hasn't yet funneled large sums to the tribes, the source says, for fear of fueling sectarian conflict. Saudi Arabia strongly opposes partition and would prefer to see a strong central government able to offer security to all Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups. But, the Saudi expert says, "if things really continue to spiral out of control, as they are currently, and there is more and more concrete evidence of Iranian involvement with the Shia militias and with the continuous ethnic cleansing that is currently happening, adding to a potential announcement of a U.S. withdrawal, it will be very difficult for the kingdom not to get involved in the Iraq situation." And a split within the House of Saud, whether based on personality or policy, could make it even harder for the U.S. to convince them to stay on the sidelines.

With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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