Reaching the summit
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia reached a turning-point when the Saudis were directed to intervene between the warring Palestinian factions. While the Mecca accords were a positive achievement, if only because it prompted the Fatah/Hamas civil conflict ceasefire; there are numerous, far deeper implications to be considered, which suggest a thorny future for the entire region if the Saudis blindly follow US prompts.
The latter part of the 20th century is scattered with examples of the US employing the maxim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, where millions of dollars and military expertise was utilised to aid those who would oppose the Kremlin and its influence. The history books show that in the 1950s, Muhammad Reza, Shah of Iran, was assisted in overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq. In the 1970s, the Mujahadeen of Afghanistan were trained by American special forces, which sealed the Afghan victory over the Soviet invaders. Egypt began to enjoy the largess only after Anwar Sadat kicked out the Soviets in the 70s, signed a peace treaty with Israel and most importantly, disenfranchised the Islamists within its borders. This marked the emergence of the new bogeyman replacing the commies.
Egypt, once recognised as the Umm Ad-Dunya or “the mother of the world” for being a global pioneer, has been relegated to the poor man of the Middle East, both economically and politically, since its unwavering commitment to the US began with Camp David and the subsequent unilateral peace deal with Israel. Egypt’s poor economic state persists despite receiving nearly $2bn a year in military and economic aid from the US since 1979. Egypt’s self-interested peace with Israel has meant it has been divorced from the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis and thus has little or no credible political, diplomatic or military influence on the matter.
There is little doubt that Egypt’s current position has been the result of careful choreography by the US. Once again, in the interest of counterbalancing the players in the region we now see the rise of the Saudis. Privately, the Saudi monarch has always been close with the US and even closer with the Bush dynasty. The Saudi role in bringing together the warring Fatah and Hamas factions and the simultaneous promise to aid Hamas without an audible whimper from the US is an indication that these events are being orchestrated by Washington, which means there must be tacit Israeli approval. With the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni calling on European leaders not to be in a hurry to accept the Mecca accord and with the absence of protestation from Tel Aviv against Saudi financial support of “Hamas terrorists”, one has to be suspicious about the motives of these parties behind closed doors.
In the background, there are rumours which began in September 2006 when the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had held a secret meeting with a senior Saudi official, perhaps King Abdullah himself. Both Olmert and the Saudis denied any such contact but Ha’aretz later clarified from its sources that Prince Bandar, secretary general of the Saudi Arabian national security council and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, was most likely the senior official at the centre of the reports of contacts between Riyadh and Israel. The purpose or course of any such meeting remains unclear. However, it is apparent that the Iranian public support for Hamas; the rise of Shias in Iraq and Hizbullah’s victory over Israel in the summer 2006; have all built up to the current propelling of Saudi Arabia as the broker of peace. It is clear that this counterbalances the growing Iranian influence in the region, which is understood and feared most by Israel. As it stands, the Saudis do not command a similar respect without such intervention and stage management from the outside.
The Saudis are possibly being exploited on two fronts. First, the recent exceptional visit by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with King Abdullah has been trumpeted as an initiative to fight sectarian Sunni-Shia strife in the Middle East. However, the additional use of this meeting to exert diplomatic pressure on Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, on the behest of the US, cannot be ruled out. This seems especially paramount on the back of Condoleezza Rice’s meeting with a host of Arab intelligence chiefs spanning Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Amman on 23 February.
Despite these secondary motives, it is the Saudis’ role in the Palestinian affair that is most concerning, not only for the Palestinians themselves but for the Saudis and the US as well. It is expected that King Abdullah will call a summit for the end of March. On the agenda will be the resurrection of “the Arab Peace Initiative” and Israel has already given it a diplomatic green light. On Israel’s Channel 10, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “A new summit is in the offing, and they ought to know which parts [of the plan] are acceptable to Israel and what seems to us like an absolute red line”. She further added that the original draft presented by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was, in her view, “positive”, this has also been confirmed by Olmert. This original draft refers to a peace deal without Israel having to implement UN Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.
A flurry of diplomatic interchanges is preceding the Riyadh summit and Prime Minister Olmert has promised to hold a meeting with Abbas, and Livni to meet with European foreign ministers. The poison in the chalice for the Saudis lies in the fact they may be dragged publicly into negotiations with Israel and end up recognising Israel, as Israel has demanded and as Egypt has done, but fail to secure a Palestinian state and peace. This would lead the Saudis down Egypt’s path, and thus result in even further marginalisation by its own people and by the Arab/Muslim world. For the US, the Saudis may be their last hope to achieve their vision for the region, and failure in this, which is guaranteed in the absence of the right of return for the Palestinians, may provide Iran with what the Saudis were propped up to control – the centre of political gravity in the region.
Friends of Al Aqsa is a voluntary organisation concerned with the defence of
Al Aqsa Haram Sharif and the protection of Palestinian Human Rights.
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