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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In public view, Saudis counter Iran in region

The New York Times

Published: February 6, 2007

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 6 — With the prospect of three civil wars looming over the Middle East — and Iran poised to gain from them all — Saudi Arabia has abandoned its behind-the-scenes checkbook diplomacy and taken on a central, aggressive role in reshaping the region’s conflicts.

On Tuesday, the kingdom is playing host in Mecca to the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two feuding Palestinian factions, in what both sides say could lead to a national unity government and reduced bloodshed. Last fall, senior Saudi officials met secretly with Israeli leaders about how to establish a Palestinian state.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has also increased its public involvement in Iraq and its support of the Sunni-led government in Lebanon. The process is shaping up as a counteroffensive to efforts by Iran to establish itself as the regional superpower, according to diplomats, analysts and officials here and throughout the region. Some even say that the recent Saudi commitment to temper the price of oil is aimed at undermining Iran’s economy, although officials here deny that.

“We realized that we have to wake up,” said a high-ranking Saudi diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “Someone rang the bell, ‘Be careful, something is moving.’ ”

The shift is occurring with encouragement from the Bush administration. Its goal is to see an American-backed alliance of Sunni Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, along with a Fatah-led Palestine and Israel, opposing Iran, Syria and the radical groups they support.

Yet Riyadh’s goals may not always be in alignment with those of the White House, and could complicate American interests.

The Saudi effort has been taken in collaboration with its traditional Persian Gulf allies and Egypt and Jordan, but it also represents another significant shift in a region undergoing a profound reshuffling. The changes are linked to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the transfer of power from Sunni Muslims to Shiites in Iraq, analysts said. They also reach back many years to the gradual decline in influence of Cairo and the collapse of a pan-Arab agenda, analysts and diplomats said.

“The Saudis felt that the Iranian role in the region has become influential, especially in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and that the Iranian role was undermining their role in the region,” said Muhammad al-Sakr, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Kuwaiti Parliament. “Usually the Saudis prefer to maneuver behind the scenes. Lately they’ve been noticeably active.”

Saudi Arabia has taken public initiatives in the past, including one in 2002, when at an Arab League meeting it proposed a regional peace agreement with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawing to its 1967 boundaries. But it prefers to work quietly, and has not recently taken such a sustained public posture.

“This is not leadership by choice; it is leadership by necessity,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “There is a leadership vacuum in the region, and they have to step forward, or Iran will.”

The United States, which is pushing the Saudis to take on this role, is alarmed at rising Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and with the Palestinian government of Hamas.

But the two countries, though sharing broad goals, have different views of the players in each conflict. For example, while the Bush administration sees the conflict in Iraq as one between allies and terrorists, the Saudis tend to see it as Sunnis versus Shiites — and they favor the Sunnis, while the Americans back the Shiite-led government. And while Saudi Arabia wants to lure Hamas away from Iran’s influence and back into the Arab fold, the United States views Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Nonetheless, both Washington and Riyadh believe that one important way to block Iran and calm the many fires in the region is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or at least appear to be trying to.

On the surface, the effort by Saudi Arabia to establish itself as a counterpoint to Tehran is a contest between the main sects of Islam: Shiites, led by Iran, and Sunnis, led by Riyadh. Iran, which is Persian and not Arab, is the only state that is led by Shiite religious figures. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, and its king draws legitimacy as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in Mecca and Medina.

The kingdom has been accused of stoking sectarian tensions as a way to drain popular support from Iran and its proxies, like Hezbollah — a charge officials here deny but for which there is some evidence.

In an interview on Jan. 27 that appeared in the daily Saudi newspaper Al Seyassa, King Abdullah was asked about widespread rumors that Shiites were trying to convert Sunnis. Iranian officials have dismissed such reports as a disinformation campaign aimed at inciting sectarian tensions.

“We are following up this matter and are aware of the Shiite proselytism and what point it has reached,” the king was quoted as saying. “This majority will not abandon its beliefs. At the end of the day it is the decision of the majority of Muslims that counts. Other creeds do not appear able to infiltrate the Sunni majority or undermine its historical authority.”

Sectarian overtones aside, the battle is also about political power, national interests and preserving the status quo. Riyadh and its allies see a threat to their own power and security in the rise of Iran and the Shiite revival. They have expressed fear at Iran’s insistence on pursuing a nuclear program, and anxiety over the rise in popularity of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon.

The Saudi shift, many here say, dates from last summer, when Israel failed to crush Hezbollah during 34 days of bombing, shocking officials here and throughout the region at the strength of Hezbollah, seen as Iran’s regional proxy army.

In the interview with Al Seyassa, the king advised Iranian leaders “to know their limits.”

Saudi analysts said another key moment came after the midterm elections in the United States when the Republicans lost control of Congress. That was read here as a sign that the United States might soon withdraw its troops from Iraq, leaving an open field to the Iranians.

“The outcome confirmed our worst fears,” said Awadh al-Badi, director of the department of research and studies at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “It said that we could no longer be sure of the Americans.”

In January, the kingdom initiated talks with the Iranians to mediate the growing stalemate in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has faced off with the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in sometimes violent confrontations. King Abdullah then held a surprise meeting with leaders of Hezbollah.

The kingdom has played host to numerous meetings of Sunni and Shiite leaders as well as of so-called moderate Muslim leaders in recent months, possibly to emphasize its custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites. And it has decided that it will be the host of the next meeting of the Arab League, in Riyadh.

Officials said they hoped at that meeting to smooth relations with Syria after its president, Bashar al-Assad, insulted the Saudi king and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in a speech last summer. Officials believe that Syria had moved closer to Iran because of its isolation, and that that shift has given Iran a bridge to the Arab world.

“Politically speaking, Syria is not in the fold,” said an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “Maybe the goal is to bring Syria back to the Arab world.”

If so, that, too, could antagonize Washington, which wants to isolate Syria further.

Saudi Arabia’s more pronounced public posture to counter Iran’s rise also reflects realities that, while not new, have been underscored by the crises in the region. In particular, Arab officials and analysts say, the Arab world is not unified by a common social, political and economic agenda, and the traditional center of influence in Cairo has shifted to the oil-rich gulf.

In his recent newspaper interview, King Abdullah made that point, lamenting the failure of Arab countries to unite, while alluding to Iran’s efforts to exploit the inability of Arabs to solve their own problems.

“We do not want any other party to manipulate our causes, profiteer from them, and draw strength from them,” he said. “We do not want any other country to exploit our causes to bolster its position in its global conflicts.”

Michael Slackman reported from Jidda, and Hassan M. Fattah from Riyadh. Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo, and Helene Cooper from Washington.
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