Saudi Arabia is to deliver an uncompromising message to the US vice-president Dick Cheney that it opposes attacking Iraq and will not cooperate in military efforts to remove Saddam Hussein.
The Saudi move - which represents a huge groundswell of Arab opinion against a looming war with Iraq - will be a blow for Mr Cheney, who is touring the Middle East to drum up support for an extended "war on terrorism".
Western diplomats had expected Arab leaders to be more supportive, at least in private. One predicted that four would give tacit backing to Saddam's removal if the US could guarantee to accomplish it smoothly.
Saudi support proved vital in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and the kingdom has been used as one of several bases for US-British patrols of the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.
Saudi Arabia last year refused to let the US use its territory as a base for the war in Afghanistan.
The kingdom's position in the Muslim world would be untenable if it provided bases for US aircraft bombing Iraq, Whitehall officials said yesterday. But its opposition to an all-out assault on Baghdad is not based only on these sensitivities. Saudi diplomatic sources say there are fears that ousting Saddam will prove more difficult than the US imagines.
One claims that about 1 million Iraqis are so closely tied to the fate of Saddam's regime that they will not switch sides as readily as the Afghans and may fight to the death. Saudi Arabia is better placed to adopt a robust position than Egypt, Jordan and Yemen - Arab countries visited earlier by Mr Cheney which are all heavily reliant on US aid.
The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in his talks with Mr Cheney on Wednesday, promised new efforts to persuade Iraq to accept weapons inspectors. King Abdullah of Jordan said after meeting Mr Cheney that he hoped for "a solution to all outstanding problems with Iraq through dialogue and peaceful means".
In Kuwait, where many are grateful to the west for rescuing their country from Saddam in 1991, there is more public support for military action. But even there, it is not necessarily seen as the best option.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002