People here responded to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in a typically quiet fashion. In my day-to-day business contacts with Saudis, the subject of the war rarely came up unless I raised it. One Saudi friend commented, “We don’t yell and shout, but when we’re among ourselves we talk about it and we say that something has to be done about US support for Israel.”
The scene in any one of the country’s Lebanese shops or restaurants was quite different. Radios blared in the background as men argued loudly over the latest reports and rumors. No doubt some Saudis also viewed the war through Palestinian and Lebanese expatriates, although this community has nowhere near the social and political influence it has in Kuwait.
News from the war captured the front pages and editorials of the Saudi press, which is privately owned but government-subsidized and controlled. When King Khalid died, Minister of Information ‘Abduh Yamani asserted that the king was himself a victim of the war, felled by his anxiety over the fate of the Islamic world. The kingdom’s diplomatic contacts with Washington were repeatedly credited here with checking the Israeli advance, easing the siege of Beirut and extracting the PLO leadership intact.
The government cast its moves in the light of the Arab camp’s general disarray. Ask a Saudi what he thinks of his government’s response to the war, and he likely will claim, “We helped save Beirut.” The press here never tires of pointing out that Yasser Arafat and Sa‘ib Salam have said exactly this. Ask the same Saudi about the Arab response, and he is likely to throw up his arms in despair. In the Saudi dailies, the “Arab nation” took all the blame and responsibility that individual states could not handle.
Early in the war, Saudis and non-Saudis alike responded enthusiastically to a call for donations of blood and money. Long lines formed at hospitals, and there were many media features on the Saudi people’s solidarity. Some letters to the editor of the English-language Arab News urged a total boycott of US goods. There were rumors, which I find hard to credit, of a protest march planned down Jidda’s Palestine Road to the US Embassy, nipped in the bud by the authorities. (The huge fortress-like embassy compound is indeed located on Palestine Road.) One Saudi told me that he was canceling his pleasure trip to the US this year. He said many friends were doing likewise, or deliberately choosing European or Japanese consumer goods over American.
After the US veto of France’s Security Council resolution calling on Israeli forces to withdraw from Beirut, I sensed a sharp escalation of anti-US sentiment. It became apparent that Reagan wasn’t paying too much attention to those cables from King Fahd. Officially, the kingdom held itself to an expression of “regret” over the veto, since a US “solution” was seen in the offing. A well-placed Saudi told me he heard of a stormy cabinet meeting in which an anti-US faction, headed by Crown Prince ‘Abdallah, demanded economic sanctions against the US, only to be overruled by the king.
The US got off easy. American businessmen report there was no drop in imports of US goods or contracts awarded to US firms that could be attributed to the Lebanon crisis. The US embassy reported a record number of visa applications in August. One American businessman noted that during the AWACS controversy the minister of commence warned that US business in the kingdom “would not be unaffected” if the deal fell through. There was no effort to use such economic leverage this summer. US businessmen here were indeed jittery, and lobbied for a stronger US policy towards Israel, but this was apparently not in response to any official Saudi linkage of US sales to Washington’s policy in Lebanon.
To be sure, world market conditions ruled out an oil embargo. A ban on imports would have been very disruptive, and would have stirred the opposition of some of the kingdom’s largest merchant families. But talks with US firms on millions of dollars worth of government contracts could have been postponed, had the government decided to play its US card.
The Lebanon crisis dominated the headlines, but the Gulf war remained a major preoccupation. King Fahd alluded to it in his ‘Id al-Fitr address. After discussing the Israeli invasion, he spoke more generally of the “enemies of Islam”: “What is far more dangerous, I am afraid, is to fight us from within by two of their most deadly weapons: sowing the seeds of dissension among our nations and driving our young men to extremes.” Israel remains the great enemy, but Iran, it seems, is the greatest threat.