New York Times
March 29, 2007
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, March 28 — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Arab leaders on Wednesday that the American occupation of Iraq was illegal and warned that unless Arab governments settled their differences, foreign powers like the United States would continue to dictate the region’s politics.
The king’s speech, at the opening of the Arab League meeting here, underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at American urging.
The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally.
They brokered a deal between the two main Palestinian factions last month, but one that Israel and the United States found deeply problematic because it added to the power of the radical group Hamas rather than the more moderate Fatah. On Wednesday King Abdullah called for an end to the international boycott of the new Palestinian government. The United States and Israel want the boycott continued.
In addition, Abdullah invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Riyadh earlier this month, while the Americans want him shunned. And in trying to settle the tensions in Lebanon, the Saudis have been willing to negotiate with Iran and Hezbollah.
Last week the Saudi king canceled his appearance next month at a White House dinner in his honor, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The official reason given was a scheduling conflict, the paper said.
Mustapha Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said the Saudis were sending Washington a message. “They are telling the U.S. they need to listen to their allies rather than imposing decisions on them and always taking Israel’s side,” Mr. Hamarneh said.
In his speech, the king said, “In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism.”
He added: “The blame should fall on us, the leaders of the Arab nation, with our ongoing differences, our refusal to walk the path of unity. All that has made the nation lose its confidence in us.”
King Abdullah has not publicly spoken so harshly about the American-led military intervention in Iraq before, and his remarks suggest that his alliance with Washington may be less harmonious than administration officials have been hoping.
Since last summer the administration has asserted that a realignment is occurring in the Middle East, one that groups Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon along with Israel against Iran, Syria and the militant groups that they back: Hezbollah and Hamas.
Washington has urged Saudi Arabia to take a leading role in such a realignment but is finding itself disappointed by the results.
Some here said the king’s speech was a response to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s call on Monday for Arab governments to “begin reaching out to Israel.”
Many read Ms. Rice’s comments as suggesting that Washington was backing away from its support for an Arab initiative aimed at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel wants the Arabs to make changes in the terms, most notably the call for a right of return for Palestinian refugees to what is today Israel. The Arab League is endorsing the initiative, first introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002, without changes.
The plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all land it won in the 1967 war in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the Arab world. It also calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Regarding the Palestinians, the king said Wednesday, “It has become necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so that the peace process can move in an atmosphere far from oppression and force.”
With regard to Iraq, the Saudis seem to be paying some attention to internal American politics. The Senate on Tuesday signaled support for legislation calling for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for further funding for the war.
Last November, officials here realized that a Democratic upset could spell major changes for the Middle East: a possible pullout from Iraq, fueling further instability and, more important, allowing Iran to extend its influence in the region.
“I don’t think that the Saudi government has decided to distance itself from Bush just yet,” said Adel alToraifi, a columnist here with close ties to the Saudi government. “But I also think that the Saudis have seen that the ball is moving into the court of the Democrats, and they want to extend their hand to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.”
Turki al-Rasheed, who runs an organization promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia, said the king was “saying we may be moving on the same track, but our ends are different.”
“Bush wants to make it look like he is solving the problem,” Mr. Rasheed said. “The king wants to actually solve the problems.”
King Abdullah said the loss of confidence in Arab leaders had allowed American and other forces to hold significant sway in the region. “If confidence is restored it will be accompanied by credibility,” he said, “and if credibility is restored then the winds of hope will blow, and then we will never allow outside forces to define our future nor allow banners to be raised in Arab lands other than those of Arabism, brothers.”
The Saudis sought to enforce discipline on the two-day meeting, reminding Arab leaders and dignitaries to stay on message and leave here with some solution in hand.
“The weight of the Saudis has ensured that this will be a problem-free summit,” said Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the Jordanian daily Al Ghad. “Nobody is going to veer from the message and go against the Saudis. But that doesn’t mean the problems themselves will be solved.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations gave a stark assessment in an address to the meeting, saying the region was “more complex, more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for a very long time.”
There is a shocking daily loss of life in Iraq, he said, and Somalia is in the grip of “banditry, violence and clan rivalries.”
Iran, which on Saturday had new sanctions imposed against it by the Security Council, is “forging ahead with its nuclear program heedless of regional and international concerns,” Mr. Ban added.
Having spent Monday and Tuesday in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Mr. Ban urged the new Palestinian government to demonstrate a “true commitment to peace.”
In return, he said, Israel must cease its settlement activity and stop building a separation barrier.
He concluded, “Instability in the Arab League states is of profound significance to international peace and security.”