Arab Unity: Can Saudi Arabia Change with the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia has been adrift since Obama won elections in the US. Having tailored its foreign policy over the last 8 years to President Bush’s, even if unhappily, Riyadh must tack with Washington’s new direction. The problem is that Washington’s direction is not yet clear. US diplomats say they are going to change fundamental policies and are engaging Syria and Iran, accommodating themselves to Lebanon’s Doha agreement, and preparing definitively to turn Iraq over to Shiite leadership. None of this makes Saudi Arabia happy, but what can it do? Its partners of the last two decades, Egypt and Israel, are of little use to Saudi Arabia today.  Egypt has no regional plan and is looking inward in preparation for the dynastic hand off. Israel is not interested in cultivating its Saudi alliance. Netanyahu brushes off talk of compromise with Palestinians and continues to embarrass Arab “moderates” who look to it for regional leadership and support against Iran.

The US is not so much preparing to “change” its policies in the region as to withdraw from the commitments that President Bush got it into.  What are these commitments?  Occupying Iraq, pulling Lebanon out of Syria’s sphere of influence, destroying Hizbullah, supporting Israel without public criticism… and, I would add, preventing Iran from developing the capability to build nuclear weapons. Backing away from the commitment to use force against Iran if diplomacy fails will be the most difficult. Today, Obama still claims Washington will use force against Iran. No one believes this threat; it should never have been made. Obama will have to find a way to climb down from such over-wrought fulminations. Hopefully, Tehran will help him retreat gracefully.

Washington’s retreat from Bush’s irresponsible overreach, is embarrassing Saudi Arabia, which must find a way to once again accommodate Syria’s influence in Lebanon and do business with Damascus as it stands by Hamas and sticking pins into Israel to get back the Golan. Saudi and Egypt made a big bet on Bush’s Strategy; they lost. Now Saudi Arabia will have to back away from its Israel strategy, which consists of pretending that the “Saudi” peace plan and the PLO remain operational. Everyone knows they are not. The two state solution is finished. So is the PLO ….. that is so long as it retains the “L” between the “P” and “O”.

Most importantly, Saudi Arabia will have to acculturate to the end of Sunni domination in the Arab World. Shiite culture and influence are here to stay. Thirty years of Islamic rule in Iran, the consolidation of Shiite rule in Iraq, and the emergence of Hizbullah as the strongest force in Lebanon are testimony to the arrival of Shiism. It is transforming the political architecture of the region. Wahhabism cannot sustain itself or guide Arabia as an ideology of state in its present blinkered and puritanical form. The Saudis will have to broaden their narrow outlook on Islam if they intend to remain a source of compromise and unity in the Arab world. Enduring political unity must be accompanied by ideological accommodation.

News Round up: The best articles on the mini Arab summit

Why Syria and Saudi Arabia are talking again
It’s about Iran, Iraq, and Israel. The two foes planned to meet in Riyadh Wednesday to solidify Arab unity amid regional volatility.
By Nicholas Blanford | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Saudi Arabia’s steps to end its bitter dispute with Syria appear to be aimed at unifying Arabs against a trio of growing concerns: Iran’s spreading influence in the region, the uncertainties of a US drawdown in Iraq, and the prospect of a right-wing government in Israel.

Saudi outreach follows Washington’s tentative reengagement with Damascus, a move that diplomats hope will have more success in weaning Syria away from its Iranian ally than the Bush administration’s policy of isolation.

“The Saudis want to get Syria away from Iran,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Washington’s style is to try engagement as well, so the Arabs are trying their best to get Syria on board.”

After a month of shuttle diplomacy, Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah will meet for a fence-mending summit in Riyadh Wednesday.

The rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia followed the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese former prime minister who was close to the kingdom’s ruling family. The Syrian regime remains a leading suspect in the assassination, although it denies involvement.

The Bush administration, angered by Syrian meddling in Iraq and support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, imposed sanctions and froze ties with Damascus in 2005. In response, Syria strengthened its relationship with Iran and sat out President Bush’s final term.

The result: an Arab world split between Western-backed Sunni states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and allies of Shiite Iran (Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas).

Relations between Egypt and Syria have also been cold, the result of tension between Cairo and Tehran. In December, Mr. Mubarak reportedly criticized Iran’s expanding influence, saying: “The Persians are trying to swallow up the Arab states.”

Arab fears of Iranian expansionism were compounded by recent unrest by Shiites in the Gulf. In December and January, Shiites rioted in Bahrain following the arrest of several Shiites on terrorism charges. In January, Saudi Shiites launched rare demonstrations after an altercation between police and Shiite worshippers in Medina.

The unrest does not appear to have been stirred by Iran, but does serve to warn Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that marginalized Shiites could provide an opening for Iranian penetration.

However, a return to traditional diplomacy by the Obama administration appears to have encouraged Saudi Arabia to bridge the rift with Syria. At an economic summit in Kuwait in January, King Abdullah invited the Syrian and Egyptian leaders to a lunch at his private residence. That ice-breaker was followed by reciprocal visits by the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers that paved the way for the Riyadh summit.

“I do think that one of the reasons Saudi Arabia wanted to patch up with Damascus is that it realized that there was no sense in pursuing a policy that had repeatedly failed since 2006, being on bad terms with Damascus,” says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.

Even Egypt appears to have swallowed its anger at Syria, recognizing that Damascus has influence over the Palestinian unity talks under way in Cairo.

“Egypt knows very well that for the Cairo dialogue to succeed it will need the goodwill of Syria,” says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, acting US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official, met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem in Damascus, the first visit to Syria by senior US officials in four years. Mr. Feltman described the meeting as “constructive,” suggesting it could pave the way for further talks.

Whether the overtures will lure Syria from Iran’s orbit remains to be seen. Syria has employed a fence-straddling strategy to deflect international pressure. It held indirect talks with Israel last year and helped broker an end to the political impasse in Lebanon, yet it continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah and has tightened military cooperation with Iran.

“Syria is exploiting the [international] paranoia over Iran very cleverly,” says a Western diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Syria broke off the indirect negotiations with Israel in response to the Gaza war. But Mr. Assad has said he is willing to resume talks even with a right-wing Likud party-led government.

Reuters reported Wednesday that a Likud politician met Syrian diplomats in the US “and felt encouraged about peace prospects.”

But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be Israel’s next prime minister, has indicated he would prefer to concentrate on the Palestinian track.

Still, if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement bears fruit, it could signal an easing of tensions in Lebanon before June polls – elections in which neither the Saudi and Western-backed parliamentary majority nor the Syrian-supported opposition are assured of victory.

“Elections in Lebanon are always decided by 11th hour deals [between rival factions] and if the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement continues it will impact positively on any 11th hour coalitions that are made,” says Bassel Salloukh, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese American University.

Syrian-Saudi reconciliation also could facilitate a stable transition in Iraq when the US withdraw troops. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran will be vying to exert greater influence there. “Someone has to fill that vacuum,” says Mr. Moubayed. “Saudi Arabia has an ambition and so does Iran. Syria stands in the middle.”

Syria loyal to Iran after Riyadh meeting
Sat, 14 Mar 2009

Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Damascus says it will not abandon its strategic ties with Tehran, despite reports of a Saudi and Egyptian effort to distance the two allies.

Iran seen as target of Saudi overtures to Syria (Reuters)
By Alistair Lyon, 10 March 2009

BEIRUT – Bottling its irritation, Saudi Arabia is mending ties with Syria to restore a semblance of Arab harmony before a summit later this month, calm regional tensions and nudge Damascus towards cooling its alliance with Tehran.

After intensive advance diplomacy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will visit Riyadh on Wednesday, along with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, the state Saudi Press Agency reported.

While open to Arab detente, Assad has shown no readiness to sever a bond with non-Arab Iran that has lasted 29 years.

“Saudi Arabia’s top priority is to confront Iran and its agenda in the Arab world. The Saudis want to weaken Tehran’s cards in the Arab world, thus the new approach towards Syria,” said an Arab official with close ties to the Saudis.

“They know it’ll be very difficult to break the ties between Syria and Iran, but by showing the Syrians what they have to gain if they return to the Arab fold, they hope to weaken that alliance,” added the official, who asked not to be identified.

On its part, Syria is keen to cast off any remnants of the diplomatic isolation it endured after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege. Damascus denied any involvement in the killing, now the focus of an international tribunal that began work this month.

Furious with Saudi Arabia and Egypt for joining Western pressure that forced it to quit Lebanon in 2005, Syria hardened its alignment with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian Hamas militants in shared hostility to Israel and the United States and its conservative Arab allies.

Saudi Arabia tempered its anti-Syrian stance after Damascus backed last year’s Qatari-mediated deal among Lebanese factions and the new U.S. administration spoke of engaging with Damascus.

“It’s about teamwork, concerted Arab action,” Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, said. Syria’s presence “back in the team” would enable Lebanon’s election in June to take place without bloodshed, promote Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation talks and advance prospects for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, Khashoggi argued.

He said Saudi Arabia wanted Syria to cooperate on Lebanon, where the two countries support opposing political blocs, and think of its neighbour “as an equal, not a subordinate”. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a foe of Syria’s role, told Reuters last week that a thaw in Saudi-Syrian ties could reduce communal tensions and promote stability in his country.

“Half-Men” Slur Rankles…..

World Agenda: why Syria key to US hopes of unlocking Middle East
From Times Online
March 11, 2009

Her renewed efforts, which included sending top aides to meet Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s youthful President, last weekend, appear to be bearing fruit already. Mr al-Assad said this week that he was ready for direct talks with Israel if the United States were prepared to act as mediator.
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“We need the United States to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations [with Israel],” he said, marking a potential step toward renewed ties with the West after years of isolation and encirclement.

America and its allies in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, hope to bring Syria in from the cold by luring it away from Iran’s sphere of influence. Syria acts as a middle-man between the Tehran regime and the Arab militias of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Breaking that link would isolate Iran even more and bring pressure on its armed satellites, both of which have fought wars with Israel in the past two and a half years.

To that end, Saudia Arabia’s King Abdullah met yesterday with Mr al-Assad in Riyadh, marking an abrupt thaw in frosty ties…..

A key sticking point in any Israel-Syria talks will be Damascus’s demands for the return of the Golan Heights.

Raed Rafei, LA Times

Most expect Syria to remain on its best behavior in Lebanon and Iraq for a while in case it is rewarded with better economic and diplomatic relations with the West.

Egypt needs Syria to help mediate a reconciliation between the Islamic militant group Hamas and the Palestinian Authority led by the Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas.

Saudi Arabia is, meanwhile, trying to get Syria back on the wagon of an Arab initiative, which offers Israel peace in exchange for the return of Arab land.

But if Syria doesn’t regain control over the Golan Heights, politicians and diplomats say, it’s hard to imagine why Damascus would let go of proxies such Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has not appeared eager to give back the land. So the task of wooing Syria might not be easy after all.

Comments (61)

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51. Akbar Palace said:

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t …

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March 19th, 2009, 7:10 pm


52. Shai said:


Those silly Arabs, they just don’t seem to know what they want. We, good-hearted Jews and Israelis, are giving them opportunities time and again, to feel equal, to be equal, and yet, they just don’t seem to get it…

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an African-American gentleman by the name of Jesse Owens represented the United States, despite the inequalities and maltreatment experienced by people of his race in America. His 4 gold medals were an achievement for African-Americans, for their identity and for their rights, no less than for America, perhaps more.

Of course Mira Awad should go to the Eurovision. And she should tell her story to all the international media, the story the SLA-Druze didn’t tell you, about how 1/5th of Israelis live in their country (equal, thriving, big houses…)

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March 19th, 2009, 8:38 pm


53. qunfuz said:

shami – if you look carefully you’ll see I wrote that Iran DIDN’T become a proper democracy. It is a half democracy, however, which is better than any of the Us-client Arab states.

Is nobody going to answer my good history of syria question?

In return I will offer my own recommendation: The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami. I’m reviewing it for the Guardian, and unless i’m smoking something very good, Schami is Syria’s Tolstoy.

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March 19th, 2009, 10:24 pm


54. Shami said:

Qunfuz ,ask the iranian people themselves what they think about their democracy,opposition members are systematically executed,Iran which is a country of minorities persecute the Arabs and the Sunnis who are more numberous than all the Shias of the Arab world(if we exclude the case of Iraq),one many aspects it remind us more the worse dictatorial totalitarian regimes than a democracy ,on the ground despite this electoral make up ,the true power remain invariably in the hand of 2 groups ,the wilayat faqih ayatollahs and the radsandjanian mafia,on the ground corruption in Iran is more important than most of Arab countries worse than any arab country of the persian Gulf..I prefer to face a clear dictatorship as we have in the arab world and Syria than a pervidious regime as the Iranian one.Despite his past ,i believe that Khatami has become a reformer,what happened on the ground? Iran had under Khatami presidency 20 cases oof execution by stonning ,he was against and it happened,why ? the answer because he was powerless in front of Khamainei gang,also despite his presidency they closed hundreds of pro reform newspapers ,assissinated and jailed members of pro Khatami people.(all of them reformers of islamic trend ,the only one which survived khomaini persecutions.
Saudi Arabia which is often presented the big monster in this field ,the number of stonning during the same period was 0.
I also invit you to check some datas.
Let us compare Iran to our failed arab states with the help of indicators.
First the human developpment index of Iran compared to the HDI of Saudi Arabia that was 30 years ago a beduin country of illeterates unlike countries unlike that already had a sophisticated society 30 years ago.

These failed states come ahead of Iran ,what would happen following the revival of this nation of 300 millions Arabs ?

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March 20th, 2009, 12:04 am


55. Akbar Palace said:

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an African-American gentleman by the name of Jesse Owens represented the United States, despite the inequalities and maltreatment experienced by people of his race in America.


Thanks for the history lesson on your favorite subject: “Racism in the US and Israel But no Other Country Please”.

Since 1936, America has come a long way. Even Michelle Obama is “proud to be an American”. I am happy for her. I think I can say Israel has come along way also, even though Israel’s existence has been in question since her inception 60 years ago (and is still in question) by fanatical Arabs.

But if 1936 Berlin was some sort of propaganda hiding the US from the evils of racism, then, I guess, the US was hiding from the same evil in WW2 just a few years later.

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March 20th, 2009, 11:24 am


56. qunfuz said:

yes, yes, Shami. you still haven’t realised that i wasn’t claiming iran is a democracy. as for ‘the revival of this nation of 300 million arabs’, i desire it as much as you do. but it isn’t happening, certainly not among the Sunnis. (i’m a sunni arab myself). the most obvious thing about iran when i visited, after the general disgust of the population with ‘men in beards’ and restrictions on personal freedoms, was the number of bookshops, and the number of people reading – Russian novels, Indian religion, European philosophy…

as for iran’s involvement with arab resistance movements…the key point is, why are arab ‘governments’, with the exception of syria, not involved? There’s no persian-shii empire, only arab failure (and the US empire, of course).

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March 20th, 2009, 3:54 pm


57. Shami said:

certainly not among the Sunnis. (i’m a sunni arab myself)

certainly ? among who the martians ?qunfuz 90 % of arabs are Sunnis.

If you meant the Arab cultural renaissance during the late ottoman era in which the christians had a pioneer role in what we called Al Nahda,but here too ,the christian and muslim intellegensia had resumed the cultural heritage of the Islamic civilization.

As for the shias ,inside Iran shi’aism as religion is hurt because of mollah hypocrisy and totalitarism ,the police state and the educated iranians who didnt leave Islam ,millions have adopted Sufism which is a Sunni phenomenon.In fact Iran itself was a Sunni country prior to the Ilkhan and the Sefewi rule .
As for the books ,the iranians as people are not very different from us,they are sons of great civilizations as we are ,many of the great figures of the islamic and arabic culture were persians and for the arab world ,it was said some decades ago ,the books are written in Egypt,printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq.

Now as i said,in the west we are doing better than the average western people,….so it’s question of opportunities,the dictators we have are unable to provide them and will not ,because the interests of the rulers and the arab people are in opposition,those of our dictators and Israel are meeting ,you understand now ,their ability to remain for so long in power.But is this configuration eternal ?

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March 21st, 2009, 11:48 am


58. qunfuz said:

i agree with your last paragraph, partially at least.

So what if Iran was once Sunni? Syria and Egypt were once Shii.

And Sufism is neither “a Sunni phenomenon” nor a Shii phenomenon.

Many Iranians have also embraced Hinduism and Krishnaism.

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March 21st, 2009, 1:48 pm


59. qunfuz said:

and the sad fact remains that the iranians are much better educated than the arabs, and that i saw more people reading in an afternoon in isfahan than in a month in any arab country.

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March 21st, 2009, 1:49 pm


60. Shami said:

Qunfuz ,not as much ,the indicators that i posted above ,like the Human developpment index shows that their Arab neighbors ,Saudi Arabia included have an higher HDI than Iran,we should take into account that the arab beduin countries began from nothing unlike was nearly a developped country 30 years ago.

Qunfuz:So what if Iran was once Sunni? Syria and Egypt were once Shii.

Not at all ,and you meant the Fatimid Khilafa era ,they never were Shi3i majority despite the Fatimid rule, Egyptian population despite its Fatimid ismaili political elite remained a majority Sunni country ,the copts were also more numberous than the Ismailis.

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March 21st, 2009, 4:09 pm


61. Shami said:

Qunfuz:And Sufism is neither “a Sunni phenomenon” nor a Shii phenomenon.

Not true ,Sufism is deeply related to Sunnism ,most if not all of the important sufi figures were Sunnis .(Ibn Arabi,Rumi,Abi Yazid Al Bistami,Hasan Al Basri ,Hallaj,Suyuti,Muhasabi,Rifa3i ,Gilani,Hafiz,Suhrawardi,Junayd,Attar,Ghazali…..).
Of course millions of Shias in today Iran ,have adopted Sufism but they are viciously persecuted by the regime for the reason i cited above.
As this one ,executed few days ago.

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March 21st, 2009, 4:29 pm


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