Affairs in the Middle East are zipping along much too fast for the liking of Saudi Arabian monarch Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. He is deeply troubled by Iran’s race for a nuclear weapon and its latest burst of military muscle-flexing.
The limelight focusing on Iran’s biggest military maneuver ever, Zarbat-e Zolfaqar; the placing of its population of 70 million on a state of war preparedness and the Lebanon upheavals distracted attention from the oil-kingdom’s most signal policy about-turn in decades: Riyadh’s return to the American security fold (first uncovered by DNW 266 on Aug. 18: Saudi and Gulf Emirates Turn back to the American Military Umbrella).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals now that, as a companion piece to this reversal, Abdullah has launched a vigorous campaign to revivify Pan-Arab unity on the basis of the dredged-up Peace Plan he unveiled as Saudi Crown Prince at the 2001 Arab summit in Beirut and which was by 2001 summit.
(The plan calls on Israel to give up all the lands won in the 1967 War including all parts of Jerusalem and guarantee the return to their homes of the Arabs who fled Israel in 1948 and their descendants. In return, Arab states would offer Israel “normal relations.”)
The Saudi king’s intentions emerge in a rare interview published in the Saudi-owned publication Shawq al-Awsat on Aug 26 and were delineated by Saudi foreign minister Prince Saudi al-Faisal after the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo last Sunday.
The full Arab summit next week will provide a testing stone for the new-old Saudi proposal.
The Saudi princes have been propelled into proactive initiatives by the menace they sense emanating from Tehran. One of its manifestations is the torrent of provocative language pouring out of the Iranian capital.
Iran, they fear, is capable of abdicating from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and dumping its international obligations to escape the heat of the opposing pressures on its uranium enrichment project from threatened sanctions by the Western powers, on the one hand, and the Russian-Chinese drive for diplomacy, on the other.
Saudi investors compete with Iran in Lebanon’s reconstruction
Another manifestation worrying Riyadh is Iran’s deepening interference in Lebanon combined with its active sponsorship of Hizballah and close partnership with Syria. These elements are seen as the ingredients of the stew which boiled over into the Lebanon War last month.
The Saudis have taken vigorous steps to shore up the Lebanese government and its army’s control of the south and rid the border with Israel of the Hizballah presence.
Since the ceasefire went into effect on August 14, Saudi entrepreneurs are encouraged to sink billions of dollars in Lebanon’s reconstruction. Riyadh is determined to frustrate Hizballah’s push to commandeer the national project for restoring war damaged areas, starting with Beirut’s Dahya and the villages of the south with help of Iranian petrodollars. Tehran has allocated more than $250 million for the project. The Saudis are determined to outspend Iran and use their petrodollars to purchase a dominant Arab Sunni voice in Beirut and undercut Iran-backed Shiite influence.
Syria and its president Bashar Asad are also in for some serious downgrading at Saudi hands.
Notwithstanding their family ties, the Saudi monarch sticks to his low opinion of the Syrian president. When Bashar succeeded his father in September 2000, Abdullah decided he was neither serious nor responsible. He sees no reason to change his mind, especially since the Lebanon War.
Abdullah was especially irked by Asad’s belligerent speeches in the course of that conflict in which he criticized fellow Arab leaders. If not cut down to size, the Saudis believe, he is capable of dragging the Arab world into a general conflict which no one needs.
In his Shawq al-Awsat interview, King Abdullah outlined the goals of his policy shifts:
1. To isolate Iran and its Arab allies and cut down their influence in the region.
2. To annul the veto prerogative which gives Syria and other radical Arab governments a disproportionate say in the resolution of regional issues at Arab League conferences.
3. To initiate comprehensive solutions for the conflicts sapping regional stability, such as the Palestinian, Iraq and Lebanese issues.
4. To create a Pan-Arab alignment. It would not be the silver bullet for eliminating Iran’s military and nuclear threat, but its moderate components could make the Shiite rulers extremely uncomfortable by shunning their regime as a pariah in the Arab Sunni-dominated Middle East. The Saudis and fellow moderate Arab governments would use their coalition as a protective wall against the backlash of a potential American punitive action against Iran, be it diplomatic, economic or military. The risks range from retaliation by Iran against their own oil installations, a blockade of the Hormuz Strait sea outlets for their oil exports, or direct military aggression.
Depriving Syria of its veto powers in the Arab League
The implication here is that the Saudi royal house has opted for a passive role in the international controversy over Iran’s nuclear armament, leaving concrete steps to the world powers led by the United States.
As for Syria, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources reveal that the Saudis have already got down to brass tacks for cutting down Bashar Asad’s leverage; they are working on amending the Arab League charter so that resolutions can be carried by an ordinary majority instead of by unanimous assent. This amendment would deprive Syria and other radical rulers of their veto power for obstructing the Arab League’s business and strengthen the hands of Saudi, Egyptian and other moderate nations.
Abdullah is lobbying hard for his peace plan. At the same time, if the Arab League adopts this amendment, it will open itself up to diverse outside initiatives which were thrown out automatically hitherto for lack of unanimous acceptance. Proposals which could find their way to the Arab League’s agenda might include possible solutions for the Iraq crisis or guarantees to protect Lebanon from Syrian subversion. The Asad regime would be faced with the hard choice of sticking with an isolated Iran or teaming up with concerted Arab accommodations in the region.
Abdullah’s Pan-Arab master plan needs American underpinning and encouragement, which he has taken steps to procure. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts have noted one of these steps as being to convince Washington that his extensive Far East tour last year in no way marked a change in Riyadh’s foreign policy orientation or its high regard for the United States as its key ally.
Saudi oil strategy is likewise held up as firmly anchored to moderate pricing. On no account will Riyadh chase away its European and Western buyers by raising prices.
According to our sources, the Saudi policy position as described here, even before its final formulation, is under careful examination in Washington as well as in Arab and Western capitals.