Riyadh: current center of Middle East diplomacy

We should note, first, who is at the current Arab summit meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Not merely the heads of state of just about all the Arab countries (which is no trivial achievement), but also: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, etc.
Note that this includes authoritative representatives of two of the four members of the US-led so-called “Quartet”. (Here‘s the text of what Ban said. It’s worth reading.)
Note that no high-level representative from the US attended. (I wonder if any were invited?)
Then, note what Saudi King Abdullah said in his opening address.
The main headline-grabber there: the part where he termed the US troop presence in Iraq “an illegitimate foreign occupation.”
Here, by the way, are some key excerpts from the draft of the statement that will be discussed and then adopted by the summit. Since the minister-level sherpas already did a lot of work Tuesday refining this Saudi-provided draft, it is expected that it will get adopted substantially as it is.
My, goodness, how the world has changed!!
Used to be that Saudi diplomacy was timid, very unclear, and conducted behind the closed doors of places of influence– mainly inside the United States. Now, suddenly, it looks both clear and amazingly robust and well-conducted.
Back when King Abdullah brokered the Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas in early February, I wrote that the Kingdom seemed seriously to have “gone off the [US-delimited] reservation” in terms of the content of its diplomacy. At the time, some people said that– in light of many long decades Saudi kowtowing to Washington–they could not believe Saudi Arabia would do that. They argued that maybe in their diplomacy over the Mecca Agreement the Saudis were still acting, effectively, as “agents” of a US plot that was particuarly heinous because it’s content and shape could not even fathomed. I said, “No! There is no way the Bushites would willingly be part of any diplomacy that involved the inclusion of Hamas rather than its continued exclusion.”
I surmised, then, that Saudi diplomacy was entering a completely new era of acting independently from the will of Washington; and since then, considerable additional evidence of this has come to light. That includes the exchange of high-level visits between the Kingdom and Iran (including Pres. Ahmedinejad’s recent visit to Riyadh); the fact and content of the joint Saudi-Iranian diplomatic initiative in Lebanon; many other strands of Riyadh’s diplomacy in the region (including regarding Syria); the King’s most recent snub of President Bush, when he abruptly turned down an invitation from Bush to host a state dinner in Washington in his honor… And now, this speech at the summit.
When I was in Egypt at the beginning of this month, many people there were remarking on the fact that suddenly it seems as if Saudi Arabia is playing the leading role in regional diplomacy that Egypt for a long time used to play. Actually, to me it now looks bigger than that: it looks as if the Saudis are now– partly through their own intent, born of desperation, and partly also because of the almost complete absence of US power or decisiveness in the region– poised to replace the even larger role in the region that the US played for many decades…
If I were King Abdullah, I’d be very attentive to issues of personal security. Many Saudi decisionmakers still harbor their own clear analyses and fears regarding the death in 1975 of the last of the Saudi monarchs to stand up to US power, Abdullah’s older half-brother King Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz. Faisal was shot dead at a family gathering by a reportedly deranged nephew who had just recently returned home from the United States.
But for now, we need mainly to understand that the Middle East is entering a significantly different era. Of course US power is not absent from the region. (And nor is Israeli power.) But the US is still led by a man of extremely limited vision and understanding, who presides over an administration at odds with itself and under growing attack from the new majority in Congress.
Back in 1975, the US and Saudi Arabia shared one vast overarching concern, which was to contain Soviet power and influence in the region. Now, many in Washington (and Israel) have tried to make the argument that Washington and the Arabs share a new overarching concern: the containment of Iranian power…. Well, maybe the Saudis and other Arabs do have some concern about Iran’s growing influence. But the way they are choosing to act on that concern is very, very different from what the Americans want them to do.
The Americans want the Arab regimes to agree with them (and the Israelis) that Iran is “the biggest” threat in and to the region– and also, if possible, to forget or at least downplay their concern for the Palestinian question. But the Arab regimes have a different view of the region and their interests in it. They consider that finding a way to manage the growing threat posed to all them by militant Islamists of all stripes– people from both inside and outside their own societies– is their first priority. And that’s a threat that would only increase if they lined up with the anti-Iran, forget-about-the-Palestinians agenda being offered to them by Washington.
Condi Rice, who has systematically insulated herself from being able to have any real understanding of regional dynamics or concerns by surrounding herself with high-level neocons like the two Elliotts, seems to have no clue how to respond to all this. And neither, of course, does her boss the President. To me, this makes the situation significantly more unstable and scary than it might otherwise be.
But anyway, the permafrost of diplomatic inactivity that settled over all strands of Arab-Israeli diplomacy with the advent of the Bushites to power in early 2001 now seems suddenly to be melting. Fascinating times ahead.

19 thoughts on “Riyadh: current center of Middle East diplomacy”

  1. Helena, this is the best analysis of the situation I have seen anywhere. Congratulations!

  2. I concur. As an example of the opposite, see recent awful CSMonitor editorial http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0326/p08s02-comv.html
    One wonders what the writer of that editorial (calling for a US-Saudi “partnership” to fence in Iran) now thinks of the Saudis referring to the US “occupation” of Iraq as “illegitimate.” If the Saudis were so determined to be partners in the neocon project, they’d be singing the praises of their fencing partners in Iraq!

  3. It can be recalled that Saudi diplomacy kicked into high gear after Iranian backed (Shiite) Hezbollah put the Lebanese Government at risk a little less than a year ago?
    Then gathered strength last November with the prospect US public opinion would force a withdrawal from Iraq leaving Saudi’s and the other Arab Sunni states to face a triumphant, nuclear-armed Iranian hegemony.
    Remember, the threat to US self interest exposed by 9/11 did not come from fundamentalist Iran but from fundamentalist Sunni Wahabbism originating, fuelled and financed by Saudi Arabians.
    The US response, ie to remove the Baathist minority Sunni regime and empower the Iranian friendly Shiite majority in Iraq, struck the mainly despotic Sunni states at their foundations.
    Now the Saudis are using their considerable weight to resolve Israel/Palestine, resolve Lebanon and resolve Iraq! Ironically all those states have democratically elected governments on a version of proportional representation so if the Saudis succeed then it (and the other Sunni states like Egypt) will face unstoppable internal pressures from their own minorities for political rights and PR democratic elections. Pax Americana, W/Rice version.
    Re the King’s reference to “illegitimate US Occupation” it should be kept in mind he was speaking for Arab consumption.

  4. After years of condemnation for totalitarianism, corruption, hypocracy, and decadence, how odd to see the Saudi family getting so much praise now.

  5. Helena, your assertion that Faisal bin Musad shot King Faisal bin Abdelaziz Al Saud after the nephew had recently returned home from the United States (along with the thinly veiled conspiracy implication) is not quite accurate. After leaving the United States, but before returning to Suadi Arabia, he spent time in Beirut as well as East Germany.

  6. Helena, your assertion that Faisal bin Musad shot King Faisal bin Abdelaziz Al Saud after the nephew had recently returned home from the United States (along with the thinly veiled conspiracy implication) is not quite accurate. After leaving the United States, but before returning to Suadi Arabia, he spent time in Beirut as well as East Germany.

  7. (Mostly for “Inkan1969”)
    I’m tempted to make some such cheap shot, myself, but the cheapness of it deters me. Also my contempt for the militant GOP’s nonsense about “Freedom means peace.” Freedom always just means freedom, of course, and why should not even Arabs be free? If, once free, they choose to hand their liberty over to Cardboard Kingdoms, at least that is their choice and not our imposition.
    The dogmatic orthodoxy around JWN need not be viewed quite as gloomily as that. Perhaps they envision Arab Freedom along Hegelian lines? One would begin with the Arab Freedom of one, say this particular M. ‘Abdalláh Bin Sa‘úd, but then after that the Weltgeist moves on, ineluctably and dialectically, to the Arab Freedom of some, say all the Arab Palace gentry conspiring together in their Arab League, and then at last in the fullness of time there shall dawn the Arab Freedom of all, with maybe even “street” Arabs included.
    It is to be remembered, after all, that instant Domino Democracy for the Levant is an insincerity of the Crawfordite vigilantes. If JWN dogma and orthodoxy on occasion lean over backwards to dodge that, surely we must at least admit that it is a real obstacle that really ought to be dodged rather than surrendered to? “Why can’t they stand up for themselves at least for once?,” is clamoured, and then a M. Bin Sa‘úd stands up — assuming he really did stand up, a point upon which I retain certain private doubts –, surely in that context one cannot expect former “years of condemnation for totalitarianism, corruption, hypocrisy, and decadence” to be the Just World Newsgroupies’ very first response?
    Why deprive them preëmptively of all the bliss of their wannabe radiant dawn before M. Bin Sa‘úd does so himself, whether by failing to follow through, or by being whipped back to his kennel by the militant GOP? ‘Tis a generous hope tbat they cherish, and if we think their new-found hope in an improbable mock-monarchical Sa‘údiyya rather naïve and forlorn and maybe even slightly ridiculous, should we not after all be pleased rather than annoyed if they turned out right and ourselves wrong? It’s not as if we gloomy Gusses were any more in control of the show than orthodox JWN Panglosses are, after all. Real control of human events, insofar as such a thing is possible at all, is of course firmly retained at nasty places like Crawford TX and al-Riyád SA and has utterly nothing to do with any of us doves.
    Was you never young and foolish, O “Inkan1969”? Did you always want to pour cold water into everybody else’s soup like this, sir? Perhaps you innocently want only to teach the young and the young-at-heart lessons about how our wicked middle-aged world really works, quantillâ sapientiâ, mi fili, regitur orbis terrarum and so on, but is it not a full-fledged Lesson of History also that the young and the young-at-heart scarcely ever learn anything from gloomy Gusses? It is customary to say at this point to say “They’ll learn,” but is it learning that they usually do as they age, exactly?

  8. I think the Saudis are scared s**tless about the obvious and imminent collapse of the US military, and all that that implies. They are especially shocked and appalled by the unflinching and unresponsive determination by the Cheney administration and its remaining allies in Congress (McCain and Lieberman) to do everything possible to insure that collapse occurs as quickly and completely as possible. Iraq has become a suicide mission for the patron and protector of both the Saudi Royal Family and its Zionist enemy. Who would have expected that? Suddenly the stakes are real.

  9. Scared sh*tless is a fairly good description. The Saudis, after historical reluctance to take more than a behind the scenes role, are now acting as active agents of Bush/Rice diplomacy to secure a settlement in Israel/Palestine. They brokered the Palestinian unity government in Mecca, it seems they are attempting to buy off Hamas from the arms of Iran and they have now hosted a prestigious Arab summit to which they INVITED a representative of an ISRAELI newspaper.
    Orly Azoulay gives a fascinating account at ynetnews.com. This would be the first time to my knowledge that an Israeli journalist, or indeed an Israeli or Jew of any occupation has been guest at an Arab summit!
    I wonder how mych Thomas Friedman has to do with these developments? Ah, not as much as the Saudis facing the prospect of the Persians with nukes.

  10. WOW! Erstwhile satrapys assuming leadership, and leadership that is at least crosswise with our stated and preferred goals and aims.
    So this is what, as well stated in your CSM piece, “the subsequent shrinkage of a quasi-imperial power” looks like.

  11. JHM,
    That [supposed] Latin quote attributed to Julius III would be:
    An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?
    An nescis, mi fili, quantilla sapientia regitur orbis?
    having ‘orbis’ and ‘terrarum’ [sic] in the same line would be redundant.

  12. Disappointment in Riyadh: the Camel and the Mouse
    “The camel went into labor, and gave birth to a mouse” A very popular Arab saying.
    The Arab Summit in Riyadh is over. It was no different from any other Summit of the past twenty some years. What is more, Iraq downgraded it by sending its amiable but ceremonial president instead of the policy-making prime minister. Qadhafi of Libya did not show up, thus robbing it of any possible offbeat path, any diversion from the usual caca de boca.
    Looking through the Arab media of various countries, each medium (usually state-owned, state-controlled, state-paid, or state-bullied) claimed that its own leader was pivotal in the success of the summit in achieving nothing. Normally these summits achieve nothing quite effortlessly, but this time they had to work for it.
    One solid result was that the Saudi Stock Market Index lost all its gains of the past year on the same day that the Summit adjourned.

  13. I’m as astonished as anyone by the House of Saud’s sudden disobedience. I suspect the breaking point came during the Lebanon War last year, when the Saudis realized that the neocons had omce again talked them into taking part in a very big gamble — and then lost the bet.
    However, unlike Helena I have a hard time — a REAL hard time — seeing the Saudis playing the role of regional superpower for very long.
    Either the USA will finally come to its senses (i.e. purge the neocons once and for all and return to a realist policy in the Middle East) or it won’t, in which case the entire region is probably heading for an explosion that will topple the Saudi dynasty (or, alternatively, reduce it once again to Uncle Sam’s whimpering ward.)
    I think Abdullah understands this, which is why is working very hard to try to lay the groundwork for the next administration to return to realism.
    He (like all of us) may have run out of time, though.

  14. If someone thinks the good means opposing whatever America supports, then one might be pleased to see Saudi Arabia asserting an “independent” path. But as some other posters have noted, this is not exactly a model progressive society. But it is obviously going to be influential, and has been more so with the decline of Iraq and Syria’s power. Really the only two major powers you have in the region are Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
    Personally, I think it’s time to see the smaller Gulf States taking stronger initiatives. That’s where I see the most positive changes in the region, however flawed they may be in other regards. You have a country that is becoming an economic powerhouse and headquarters for large businesses (UAE, Dubai in particular), a country that has the leading independent media outlet in the region (Qatar), and a country which has been slowly experimenting with democratic reforms (Bahrain).
    Arguably, it may be in these country’s best interests to let the “big boys” swagger around as the leaders of the Arab League, and just focus on improving their own lot. But those states could also improve their positions if they have more influential roles in the region

  15. I strongly disagree with HC. “But the US is led by a man of extremely limited vision and understanding.” President Bush and Condoleeza Rice well-understood and continue to understand that the status-quo in the greater middle east region had to change. This is in stark contrast to the Clinton administration, who turned wasted 8 years and who in my opinion could have prevented 9-11 if they had had ‘vision and understanding’ of the changing geopolitical climate after the end of the Cold War. I support Bush, Cheney and Rice, as I support our troops and I hope that we will be in Iraq for forseeable future as democracy throughout the world depends on it.

  16. Farah, there are two critical differences between Helena and you and your two idols Bush and Condi. Helena knows something about the Middle East, and Helena is aware of and cares about the humanity of the people who live there.
    As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” [1920]
    H. L. Mencken (1880 – 1956)
    That great and glorious day arrived in January, 2001.

  17. “I support our troops and I hope that we will be in Iraq for forseeable future”
    A classic example of doublethink.

  18. The short-lived American empire is not only falling apart at the periphery, it is rotting from the inside out. This is the classic pattern, of course, just accelerated for modern times.
    Because of the experience of 1929, Americans tend to associate economic depression with stock market crashes and bank failures. It may be, as conservative economists argue, that the investor class has since figured out how to insulate itself from these risks. But as John Edwards reminded us, there are now two Americas. Since the mid-1970’s, one of them has been in a slow downward spiral, which has become more like a nose dive since 2001. There is no risk management system in place to stop it. The money managers can’t even see it coming. They don’t seem to notice that they are living in increasingly isolated pockets of wealth, surrounded by a rising sea of slums.
    WaPo October 27, 2005:
    “Ben S. Bernanke does not think the national housing boom is a bubble that is about to burst, he indicated to Congress last week”
    WaPo October 5, 2006:
    “The ‘substantial’ slump in the housing market is likely to slow U.S. economic growth by about a third in the second half of this year and dampen growth early next year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said yesterday.”
    WaPo March 31, 2007:
    “Within a square mile of Laitis’s house in this bedroom community outside Detroit, more than half the 96 homes on the market are foreclosed properties.”
    A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

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