November 27, 2002
Charity in question as Saudi funds scrutinized
Kingdom said to walk fine line in terror war
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Saudi charity practices and the murky
financial trail they often leave are under renewed scrutiny following
accusations that money from a member of Saudi Arabia's royal
family wound up aiding the two Sept. 11 hijackers who lived in
More broadly, the incident has reignited a smoldering debate over
the extent of Saudi Arabia's cooperation with the U.S. war on
terrorism and the fine line the desert kingdom walks on the issue.
It is common for Saudi royalty to answer pleas for financial
assistance even from strangers, reflecting the kingdom's extensive
patronage system, experts on the region say. The money is handed
out for medical bills, college tuition and other needs.
Some of it is bound to end up in the wrong hands, wittingly or not,
the experts say.
"The whole Saudi system is set up on a sort of patronage basis,"
said Robert Seibert, an expert on Middle Eastern politics at Knox
College in Illinois. "What the recipients do with those (funds) when
they receive them is sort of up to them. There's not a lot of
accountability. It's more based on trust."
The patronage practices are an outgrowth of the Muslim duty to
extend charity to those in need, which is considered one of the five
pillars of Islam, Seibert said. They also help the Saudi regime
secure public support.
The FBI is investigating thousands of dollars in contributions that
Saudi Princess Haifa Al-Faisal made from 1999 to 2002 to a
woman who lived in San Diego. Saudi officials, who have
launched their own investigation, say the money was meant to help
the woman and her Saudi family pay medical expenses related to a
thyroid condition she suffered.
Some of the money reportedly ended up with the woman's
husband and another man. Those men, in turn, helped two of the
Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers – Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar
– find housing, open bank accounts and get established in San
Diego, authorities believe.
The woman's husband, Osama Basnan, denied the allegations in
an interview with a Saudi-owned newspaper. Basnan, who like his
wife has been deported from the United States, said all of the
money went to pay his wife's medical expenses and that he never
knew Alhazmi or al-Midhar.
Alhazmi and al-Midhar were aboard the airliner that slammed into
the Pentagon. Like most of their fellow hijackers, they were Saudi
Princess Haifa, and her husband, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi
Arabia's ambassador to Washington, say that they are loyal
partners in the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and that they are pained that the donations are unfairly adding new strains to U.S.-Saudi relations.
"This is a war, and we are in it together," Prince Bandar told The
New York Times in an interview Monday night at his Virginia
mansion. He said the fundamental relationship between Saudi
Arabia and the United States remains strong.
Princess Haifa, who also took part in the interview, said: "The
least I can say is that I am outraged when people think I can be
connected to terrorists when all I wanted to do was to give some
help to someone in need. My mother taught us never to judge
anyone by what you hear without any proof, and it seems that
people are judging us without any proof."
The princess said she had never met the woman, who she said
asked for help in a letter, but that she had had an assistant check
the woman's claim that she had six children. The princess said she
made dozens of charitable contributions per year to needy Saudis
who approached her or the embassy for medical or other
Critics say the Saudis have not done nearly enough to ensure that
such contributions are used for their intended purpose.
"They have to stop spreading their money out without knowing
where it's going. That would help dramatically" in the war on
terrorism, said Harvey Kushner, a terrorism expert at Long Island
University. "They've been able to hide behind this tradition of an
infinite amount of charity."
In a lawsuit, relatives of Sept. 11 victims have accused some
members of the Saudi royal family of aiding Osama bin Laden's
al-Qaeda network. Princess Haifa, whose father was killed by an
Islamic extremist, was not among those accused.
"Osama bin Laden is a naturalized Saudi Arabian whose family still
has close ties to the inner circles of the monarchy," the suit alleges. "Royal denials notwithstanding, Saudi money has for years been funneled to encourage radical anti-Americanism as well as to fund the al-Qaeda terrorists."
Saudi officials have denounced the accusations. Bin Laden was
exiled in 1991.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, numerous Muslim charities were
investigated for alleged financial ties to terrorism and some had
their assets frozen by the United States and other nations.
Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, said Saudi
Arabia has cooperated with the international crackdown on
terrorism funding. It "has imposed strict regulations" on charitable
organizations, he said, although he acknowledged individual giving
gets less scrutiny.
"We've received nothing but praise from the White House, the
Treasury Department and the Justice Department on what we're
doing to help fight terrorism," Al-Jubeir said.
U.S. officials are pressing Saudi Arabia to do more.
Adeed Dawisha, an expert on the Middle East at Miami
University in Ohio, said it is unlikely that members of the royal
family would knowingly bankroll al-Qaeda because bin Laden has
called for the overthrow of the Saudi regime.
But he added, "Saudi Arabia has to walk a very fine line" when it
comes to public perceptions of its role in the war on terrorism,
given the strong anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.
"On one hand it certainly recognizes the forces of terrorism are
likely to target them, the royal family. On the other hand, they have
to be careful not to be perceived as doing this as part of a
Western-directed campaign," Dawisha said.
Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.