New Mideast peace broker

SAUDI Arabia is emerging from behind the door,” said a high-ranking European Union diplomat in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Fri 9 Feb 2007, 9:59 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

Indeed, under the leadership of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia, a long time dormant power in the Middle East, is beginning to wake up to assume a role of greater political responsibility in the area.

King Abdullah, according to a Saudi adviser with close ties to the royal family, believes that since the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, there has not been an Arab leader with the caliber of charisma and the ability to influence and attract the masses the way Nasser was able to.

Abdullah sees himself filing that vacuum. While Abdullah may lack the oratory qualities of Nasser, he holds another advantage; that of guardian of Islam’s two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah.

It is therefore no sheer accident that the Saudi monarch has been very active during these last few months in trying to bring about negotiated settlements in the three most explosive conflicts in the Middle East: Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Within the past 24 hours, Abdullah convened in the holy city of Makkah with President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in his capacity as the head of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction in the West Bank and Gaza; with Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ politbureau, who is based in Damascus, and with Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas member Ismail Haniyeh.

Abdullah is determined to extract an agreement between Hamas and Fatah that would put an end to weeks of deadly clashes between the Islamist Palestinians of Hamas and their secular brothers in Fatah. To date more than 100 people have been killed in intra-Palestinian violence.

Under the guidance of Abdullah, who invited the Palestinian leaders to the Grand Mosque for talks, Fatah and Hamas have reiterated their commitment to observe a ceasefire; to settle their differences without shedding more blood and to agree on the formation of a national unity government.

President Abbas stressed that the committee would not leave empty handed. He said no one would leave the meeting without first reaching an agreement. While Prime Minister Haniyeh said they will “not return to Palestine to kill each other but will go back with an agreement that unites the Palestinians.”

"We came here to reach an agreement and we have no choice but to reach this agreement," said Khalid Meshaal, the chief of Hamas’ political bureau.

But the Palestinian–Palestinian dispute is just one of three fires the Saudi king is attempting to extinguish. Abdullah is also negotiating in the Lebanon conflict, trying to prevent that country from falling back into another cycle of maddening violence that could drag Lebanon back into another civil war.

With that in mind, King Abdullah invited Syrian President Bashar Assad to Saudi Arabia a short while back. Syria plays a pivotal role in Lebanon, where Damascus still maintains an important contingent of intelligence agents, sympathisers – such as Hezbollah, members of the Lebanese branch of the Syrian Baath Party and a plethora of smaller groups that feel they owe allegiance to Damascus for some reason or other.

But Syria also plays a role beyond Lebanon. Damascus, much as Teheran, can reach deep in the Palestinian territories. Damascus plays host to several Palestinian extremist groups, such as Hamas’ politbureau chief Meshaal and Ahmad Gebril who commands the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. And to a certain extent, Syria also is able to pull the strings on the Lebanese Shia organisation, Hezbollah.

Hosting the chiefs of Hamas and the PFLP-GC in Damascus allows Syria to have a say in the Palestinian Authority areas.

And when it comes to the third fire —Iraq —though by no means the lesser of the three conflicts in which King Abdullah is involved in mediating, trying to extinguish the flames of sectarian or political divisions, once again Syria finds itself playing a role simply due to its geographic position as a neighbour who shares a long and porous border with Iraq.

And finally Saudi Arabia’s king is also trying to mediate with Iran, which he and other Sunni leaders are wary of the rising influence of Shiaism in their immediate neighbourhood.

Given the urgency needed in addressing the Mideast’s triple crises, Saudi Arabia’s “emerging from behind the door” to play a more prominent role in the region may not come a moment too soon.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com



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