Five planeloads of advisors, interpreters, doctors and nurses, young family members and some of King Abdullah's 30 wives landed last month at London's Heathrow Airport. The immediate Saudi royal family was hosted at Buckingham Palace, as is proper. The remaining relatives filled up the luxury hotels of London and the management of Harrods decided to keep the gates of the emporium open beyond the usual closing time. After all, it isn't every day that an entire tribe arrives for the annual shopping spree.
The king is in town and Britain is doing obeisance. Not a single word was said, of course, about the dodgy deal for the sale of fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. Rumor has it that in order to win the contract, about $33 million flowed through back channels into Saudi hands from the planes' manufacturer, BAE Systems. The noise of demonstrations in the streets, protesting the corruption in Saudi Arabia, did not penetrate the walls of the guest palace, nor did the decision by the British court to reconsider the moratorium on the investigations sully the congenial atmosphere of the visit, which culminated as planned in the signing of more contracts for the sale of aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Naturally, it also proved immensely helpful that the Annapolis conference is approaching and Saudi sponsorship is so important that no one wants to annoy the 84-year-old king whose realm just continues getting richer as oil prices soar.
The Arabic press, most of which is controlled by the Saudis, is reporting only on the positive atmosphere and Abdullah's attempts to advance the peace process throughout the Middle East. From Iraq to Lebanon, from the Iranian atom to the Palestinian issue - Saudi Arabia is the main producer of diplomatic initiatives in the region.
This is not just a matter of the first meeting between a Saudi king and a Pope, which took place this month at the Vatican, or of the fact that Saudi Arabia has granted Pope Benedict XVI a kashrut certificate after he stirred up a huge storm in the Islamic countries a year ago when he quoted a hostile description of Islam. Saudi Arabia, for example, is worried about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, just as it was worried in the past, when Iran demonstrated its ballistic capabilities with Shihab 3 missiles. Now King Abdullah has a new initiative aimed at neutralizing the danger of another war close to his palace grounds.
In interviews with the media he has been proposing the following arrangement: An international center for the enrichment of uranium will be established in some neutral country, say Switzerland, and any state in the region that is in need of enriched uranium for peaceful purposes will receive what it wants from this center, which will be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This idea is somewhat similar to a proposal made by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader - but in the Saudi view Russia is not a neutral country. In any case, Iran is not showing any signs that it is prepared to buy either the Russian or the Saudi idea.
One thing is certain: Saudi Arabia will make every effort to prevent a war with Iran. Even if it does not have veto power in the UN Security Council, it does have a sympathetic ear in the corridors of the U.S. administration and in all the other veto-wielding countries. It also has good connections in Iran thanks to the diplomatic activity of Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who has built up friendly relations with the Iranian leadership and has also initiated cooperation agreements between the Sunni kingdom and the Shi'ite state. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Saudi Arabia this year therefore marked a milestone in the relations between the countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have a few more common interests in the region. Just like Washington is brewing a series of sanctions against Iran while at the same time planning the next dialog with it on matters concerning Iraq, Riyadh is fomenting anti-Shi'ite discourse in the country and talking about the Iranian danger, while continuing to maintain trade relations with Iran. The extent of annual trade between the two countries amounts to about $1 billion (not counting oil). And this year their finance ministers met to examine the possibility of further expanding the economic cooperation.
Washington is gritting its teeth but has so far refrained from scolding. When trade with Saudi Arabia amounts to more than $41 billion, there's no spoiling the relations. But it is not just economic relations that connect Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States. All three are opposed to the breakup of Iraq into autonomous federal provinces - Riyadh in order to maintain the status of Iraq's Sunnis; Tehran in order to be able to influence all of Iraq by means of a Shi'ite government. As for Washington, it will certainly not be able to depict a crumbled Iraq as a diplomatic achievement.
The good relations that have been forged between Saudi Arabia and Iran are now also being enlisted to end the political crisis in Lebanon. Iran supports Hezbollah's position demanding the establishment of a national unity government in which the opposition will have the right to veto important government decisions, whereas Saudi Arabia supports the position of the majority led by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, who held Saudi citizenship and was considered a darling of the kingdom where he attained his tremendous wealth. But Saudi Arabia and Iran, and not Egypt or the Arab League, are suggesting the compromises, and it is they who will have to nod when the crucial moment comes.
Abdullah, who also holds the positions of prime minister, commander of the Royal Guard, head of the National Economic Council, president of the national Council on Petroleum and Minerals and head of the Center for National Dialogue, is not a healthy man. He inherited his formal position from his brother King Fahd in 2005, but by this point he had already run the kingdom in his brother's stead for many years, after Fahd suffered a stroke and was not even able to run a single working meeting.
It was Abdullah, as crown prince, and not King Fahd, who articulated the idea of "the Saudi initiative" that became "the Arab initiative" - an initiative that promises peace and normalization with the entire Arab world if in return Israel withdraws to the 1967 armistice lines. Since the initiative was first proposed, at the Arab League conference in 2002, it has become a formative document that not only has canceled the old perceptions of non-recognition of and non-negotiation with Israel, but has also transmuted non-recognition of Israel from a rigid ideological stance into a matter subject to change with the help of a diplomatic formula.
This is the position that has transformed Saudi Arabia from a "country that joins" initiatives by others into a country that initiates. In fact it has been establishing its position as the Arab world's hegemon over the diplomatic discourse in the Middle East. Though Abdullah's failed attempt to mediate between Fatah and Hamas at the Mecca conference in February of this year showed the kingdom's limitations, its support for the Annapolis conference - although it is not yet clear whether it will send a senior representative - and the financial backing it is providing and will continue to provide to the Palestinian Authority are turning Saudi Arabia into President George W. Bush's most reliable ally when it comes to managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his Middle East policy as a whole.
And because of this special status, Bush could only bite his lip when Abdullah informed him at the last minute that he would not show up for a special dinner the president had organized for him last April. Bush does not host many state dinners - he enjoys this "about as much as having a root canal," according to commentator Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post - thus the great importance he attributed to the dinner with Abdullah is clear. A short time later the king made it clear why he had slapped the royal family's friend in the face: "The United States is an illegal occupying force in Iraq," the Saudi king declared and in so doing showed Bush that there are Arab red lines to White House policy. The pomp of his latest visit to Europe has made it clear to Washington once again that the friend from Riyadh does not see the U.S. as his only ally.
The upshot of this is that when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Washington tends to close its eyes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, has no problem publicly chastising Egypt for human rights violations. Bush has unhesitatingly called for the release of the leader of the opposition Al Raad party, Ayman Nour, from Egyptian prison. Yet apart from the periodic State Department reports on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, no presidential or other governmental statement has been heard from Washington concerning the state of human rights in the kingdom.
Today, too, despite Abdullah's promises to revise the curriculum, one can still read in Saudi textbooks about the need to hate Jews and Christians, about the Jews' evil plans and about how some Jews - true, not all of them - are devil-worshippers. But what is all this compared to a handshake between a senior Saudi representative and an Israeli prime minister?
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