According to several press reports in the last week or so, the authorities in Riyadh, have begun a process of distancing itself away from the Bush regime, both in terms of its Iraq policy, as well as American policy towards Hamas, and, vis-`a-vis American policy in general. The evidence for this shift, which if true, holds possibly momentous ramifications for both the American as well as the overall Western position in the Near and Middle East, are the following:
In February, Saudi Arabia in opposition to American policy towards Hamas, successfully holds a meeting to reconcile the latter with their opponents, Fatah. The end result of Saudi mediation being a coalition government, between the two opposing parties, in which Hamas clearly has the upper hand. Subsequently, some of the Quartet powers, start to edge away from the previous policy of attempting to isolate and overthrow Hama. In March, the Saudis welcomed Persian President Ahmadinejad, to Riyadh, for a warm welcome and extensive, if not very conclusive talks. And, most recently at the Arab Summit, King Abdullah restated his earlier 2002 peace proposal to Israel. And, did so without modifying it very much to make it more acceptable to Israel, in a way which American Secretary of State Rice, had both publically and private urged. To top it all off, at the self-same summit, Abdullah, also denounced in the most forceful terms the American presence in Iraq, calling it
an 'illegal occupation'(for the news from the summit, see: www.dailystar.com.lb). Finally, was the leaked decision (presumably leaked by the Saudi Embassy in fact), to cancel the King's attendance for a Gala White House dinner in his honor, later in April. Thus broadcasting for all and sundry, the Saudi dissatisfaction with the current shape of things in Washington DC (for the cancellation of the dinner, see Jim Hoagland's article which broke the story in www.washingtonpost.com).
What should one make of the above train of events? Does it signal a definitive break between Washington and Riyadh? According to University Professor Joshua Landis, what the above sequence indicates is that the USA's regional Sunni Arab allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, are:
"Saudi Diplomacy at the summit represents an important break with US policy in the region, designed as it is to pit 'moderate' Arabs against 'terrorist' Arabs. The Bush administration views Arabism as fascism....Saudi Arabia has rejected the Bush notion that Islamo-fascism is the root of Middle Eastern problems" (see:www.syriacomment.com).
While I have the strongest admiration for Professor Landis' analytical skills, I am somewhat skeptical of this prognosis. While it is overwhelmingly the case, that Riyadh, has activated its regional diplomacy for purposes of strengthening its position and the position of its Sunni Arab allies, that does not necessarily mean that it is definitively breaking with Washington. Nor does it, as per Landis, mean that the Kingdom, is making a reapprochment with Damascus and abandoning the Siniora government in Beirut. On the contrary as the Beirut-based Daily Star's Tom Badran commented on Saturday, in fact Syria's Bashir Assad, received short shrift at the Summit, with the Siniora government position being supported, and, that of Damascus' Lebanese clients, ignored. In addition, Damascus' attempt to introduce more stringent language to the Peace offer was rejected out of hand by Riyadh (see: www.dailystar.com.lb). As a commentator for the leading, independent, Arab language paper Al Hayat, commented the losers from the Summit, was the USA, and its Quartet allies, but, Persia, Damascus and the latter's Lebanese allies (see: Raghida Dergham, in www.english.daralhayat.com). For both Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, the key aspect of the Summit, was not the declaration about Iraq, but, the Peace proposal, which while not water down to make it more palatable to Tel Aviv, was taken much more seriously than in 2002. Indeed, even if one were to take with 'cum grano salin', as it were, Olmert's protestations about being able to achieve 'significant' peace terms within five years, still this is a much better response than offered by Tel Aviv than in years past (see: the article in 31st March Financial Times, "Olmert sees 'significant' peace hopes in 5 years'). To conclude, I would argue as has most recently Helena Cobban has, that for Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Arab neighbors, it is the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, which they see as the salvation of stability in the region. And, not, pace Joshua Landis, et. al., 'breaking' with American policy in the region. As per Cobban, Riyadh, et. al see:
"a clear linkage between US influence in the region as a whole and US policy toward the Palestinians. They argued forcefully that making real progress on attaining a final Palestinian-Israeli peace could significantly help the US manage the situation in and around Iraq. Palestinian and Arab leaders, they say, are ready for serious peace talks. They wonder if Washington has the vision and decisiveness required for real progress" (www.csmonitor.com).