King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
always had a lot to do. But last week, he also had a lot to say.
He granted a long interview to the
leading Kuwaiti newspaper as-Siyasah, and delivered a long address on Saudi
national TV. In his address and the interview, he touched upon several
urgent issues – both local and regional. Paramount among these were the
violent confrontations in Lebanon and Gaza – which is verging on civil war
in both places – the simmering sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni, the
tragic situation in Iraq, as well as relations with Iran.
But aside from the issues themselves,
one could read much into what the king said.
The most prominent sign was the
growing concern over the future of the region and its political stability;
but evolving in unison with the sense of anxiety was the clear sense that
the Saudi monarch sees a growing role for Saudi Arabia as a key player –
along with Egypt – in the regional politics of the Middle East.
Wherever you look in the region you
find strife and chaos – from Palestine to Lebanon to Iraq. Israel and Iran,
each in its own way, are contributing to this chaos, not to mention
terrorist groups and the Syrian intervention in Lebanese politics.
So, can the regional heavyweights
make a difference?
The international isolation of Syria
and the current weakness of Iraq have thrown much of the burden of putting
the Arab house in order, onto Saudi Arabia and Egypt: a daunting task – to
say the least. It is now beholden on Egypt to draw upon the influence it has
had as the perennially major player in pan-Arab politics. For its part,
Saudi Arabia, which – since the days of the late King Faisal – has focused
its attention on the Muslim world, is now moving perceptibly towards a more
intensely regional focus.
King Abdullah would seem to be
well-placed to steer this shift. Since his days as second deputy prime
minister during the reign of King Khalid, he has been among the most active
of the senior Saudi royals in championing Arab causes. During the reign of
King Fahd he regularly carried out the difficult mission of trying to rein
in the belligerent policies of Assad of Syria and Saddam of Iraq. Most
importantly, perhaps, is that it is his plan for peace with Israel –
submitted to the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 – which has been accepted by
the Arab countries and called ‘The Arab plan for peace in the Middle East’.
In taking such initiatives King
Abdullah is not so much prompted by political calculations as by a genuine
concern for those who are suffering. This sympathy has been evident on many
occasions – from giving sympathy to Saudi victims of terrorism, to providing
free surgical care to conjoined twins in need of separation.
But what is the value of this shift
of political emphasis – and this ‘human touch’ – to Saudis and their
Aside from the heartfelt humanitarian
concerns of the man, it seems clear that King Abdullah has made a range of
careful and complex strategic calculations: Saudi Arabia must reform itself
in order to address the dire shortcomings in its national life that have
been exposed in recent years; equally, it cannot permit itself to believe
that it is immune to global and regional political and social currents. In
short, it cannot bury its head in the sand.
But in order to face up to the
regional and global issues, it must find ways to openly and honestly discuss
domestic issues that are evident to everybody.
A part of this strategy has been the
aim of convincing the outside world that Saudi Arabia is not a nation of
terrorists. Even before his inauguration as king, he launched a vigorous
campaign to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia on the international
scene. Simultaneously he has sought to reshape the outlook and general
attitude of the country, by encouraging religious moderation, tolerance,
openness, and liberal reforms within the kingdom’s borders.
Reshaping the image abroad would be
impossible if there were not genuine change at home – a fact King Abdullah
clearly knows and is ready to act upon. Within the past few years Saudi
Arabia has been quite successful in fighting terrorism, as well as having
achieved unprecedented economic growth and significant foreign investment
outside the oil and gas sectors. The coming years promise to bring
unparalleled growth and development, huge public works projects with huge
budgets having been announced, and some already having been started.
However, the king is well aware that
the political stability and economic prosperity of the kingdom depend to a
large extent on the political stability of the region. Regional unrest could
frustrate the ambitious development and
modernization projects in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the other Gulf States.
After Afghanistan, Iraq is now turning into a training ground for terrorists
– a development which has prompted Saudi Arabia to contemplate seriously the
idea of building a dividing wall along its border with Iraq.
Conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon are
also fomenting sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia, which is a major
concern for Saudi Arabia owing to the kingdom being home to a large Shia
minority. As for the Palestinian issue, it has been misused and abused by
terrorists and radicals on the left and the right, and by all shades of
religious and national radical groups.
The Arabs have rarely been so much at
odds and as divided as they are today.
Perhaps no greater evidence of this
rivalry can be seen in Palestine. It is for this reason that all Arab – and
other - eyes will be on Mecca this week as the leaders of Hamas and Fateh
meet to try and end their bloody strife in Gaza. The question being asked
by all those preoccupied by the Palestinian issue, or engaged in the
deteriorating situation, will be: does King Abdullah have the clout to bring
the two sides to their senses, end their fighting, and pursue instead the
Peace Plan with the Israelis that he placed on the table at Beirut four
Sceptics have said that money will
not solve the crisis in Palestine, and that Saudi offers of funds will not
draw the two sides closer. However, a lot of preparation has gone into the
forthcoming meeting. Saudi officials having met on numerous occasions with
both parties in the hope that by the time the rivals sit down together they
will already have decided that the time is right for a real ceasefire and a
constructive relationship. In the end, however, success will only result if
the two sides decide it is in their interest. Can King Abdullah steer them
towards regarding peace as a viable option? We shall see.
Without wishing to sound trite, I
would argue that Saudi Arabia is currently in a position to see that what
for some is undoubtedly a crisis, is for others – namely, the kingdom – a
major opportunity. As negotiator, mediator and provider of counsel, Saudi
Arabia under King Abdullah is not only seeking to bring Arab neighbours
together as an involved party; it is also – by default more than by design –
in a position to replace the now discredited role once played by the United
States. No other country can do this; but rarely has such a role been more
There is no doubt that such a role is a major task for
Saudi Arabia to fulfill – that of peace broker in the Middle East. It is a
role that will be underpinned by its oil wealth and its importance to the
But besides wealth and religion, fulfilling such a role
also requires moral force to bolster its effectiveness. This moral force can
best be achieved by focusing as much on improving its political performance
– on the local level – as on improving its diplomatic efforts on the
international level. A Saudi focus on what ordinary people need, as much as
on what rival groups and governments are battling for, would draw King
Abdullah and his diplomats closer to the aspirations of the Arab masses, for
Saudi Arabia needs to establish credibility with Arab and Muslim people as
much as with Arab and Muslim governments.
Rome – of course – was not built in a day, and King
Abdullah has been monarch for less than two years. The broad parameters and
much of the detail of where he wants to take the kingdom are now clear. The
signs are good. But the underlying need remains for the kingdom to update
its political thinking and its political rhetoric to be more in tune with
modern times. A successful conclusion to the talks in Mecca is one thing;
but using wealth and religious credibility to sincerely encourage and enable
such dialogue to become the order of the ‘new day’ throughout the region –
including at home – is something rather different.