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Arab summit in Riyadh
Photo: AFP
Times have changed
Show of power at king's palace reflects growing Saudi influence in region
Riyadh: The power of the Saudi kingdom, which is gradually becoming a leading force in the Middle East, didn't go unnoticed at the Arab Summit in Riyadh.

 

The heads of the Arab states coming through the congress palace doors in Riyadh couldn't ignore the opulence evident in every corner: From the Italian marble highlighted by bright lights, to the solid gold faucets in the bathrooms, the shining crystal chandeliers hanging from the expansive session hall ceilings, through to the gold trays bearing the emblem of the royal court on which lunch was served.

 

A fleet of thousands of shiny new cars had been put at the disposal of the guests. Officials of the Saudi Information Ministry accompanied them to the conference sessions. The hundreds of journalist who had arrived from all over the world to cover the summit were taken aback by the luxurious press center prepared for them. Royal guards dressed in white robes and bearing golden swords were stationed in each of the session rooms.

 

This demonstration of Saudi power is the climax of a recently developing process. The US has realized that its support for Israel coupled with its desire to enforce democracy such as in Iraq, served to anger the Arab world and weakened its ability to serve as a Mideast mediator.

 

Thus, in recent weeks Washington has shifted its policies and has decided to come closer to the Arab world. This decision has transformed Saudi Arabia, which is closely affiliated to the American Administration, into a bridge between the US and the Arabs states.

 

The Riyadh summit has established Saudi Arabia's status as a regional superpower. The reconciliation process between Israel and the Arab world led by the Saudi kingdom has granted the Saudis the status of a popular mediator sought by all.

 

Leaders of the region are seeking Saudi assistance in resolving the conflicts plaguing them. The Syrian president has asked the Saudis to add him to the diplomatic process being consolidated; the Lebanese president placed the issue of the instability of his country on King Abdullah's table; and the Sudanese president made pilgrimage to Riyadh in the hope that the king would assist him in finding a solution to the ongoing tragedy in the Darfur region.

 

Egyptians unhappy

Heads of the Saudi kingdom are now trying to also use their influence on Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who arrived at the summit at the very last moment, in order resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

 

Only the Egyptian representatives at the summit walked around bearing an angered expression. It's easy to see how humiliated and offended the Egyptians are by the Saudi's takeover of their leadership role in the Mideast arena. Times have changed: Processes that will evolve shortly in the Middle East and Africa will pass through King Abdullah's courtyard.

 

Saudi Arabia has managed to bring about an agreement between the Palestinians, which paved the way to the establishment of a unity government, a Saudi official who was proud of his country's new status told me.

 

He said the Saudis shall continue on this path. He added that they initiated the reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world and will soon convene a joint conference with the participation of representatives from the Middle East and the Quartet, in order to build the engine that will move the peace process forward.

 

Contrary to him, there are some who contend that Saudi Arabia is attempting to establish a coalition in the Arab world in order to sabotage Iran's nuclear ambitions. Diplomatic sources at the conference told me that behind the scenes the following move is being consolidated: The US has realized that it is losing its power due to its tendency for unilateralism towards Israel and has decided to get closer to Saudi Arabia so that it would consolidate a moderate Arab coalition.

 

However, just like in Washington, there are no free meals in Riyadh either: In order for the Saudis to enter this process, the Americans assured them that they would exert pressure on Israel to make difficult decisions and to reach a compromise that would enable the Palestinians to establish an independent state. Thus, the US would be granted a type of Arab umbrella for a diplomatic or military campaign against Iran, whereas Saudi Arabia would be able to boast before the Arab world that it had succeeded in bringing about an Israeli compromise.

 

Symbolic and historic event

A senior official in the Saudi administration told me that had the Israeli prime minister's political status been stronger, it may well be assumed that the peace train would have proceeded much faster. "There's a serious process here," he said.

 

He told me that the fact that I, a representative of an Israeli newspaper, was present there is not incidental. He added that this was a "symbolic and historic event." It's not just a sign for Israel; it is primarily aimed at the Arab world as if to say: Look, speaking to the Israelis is possible, he said.

 

The presence of an Israeli journalist in the Saudi king's palace sparked considerable unease. Following publication in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Arab journalists and media outlets tried to locate me for an interview. Al-Jazeera reported my visit in its news update, as did the French news agency and the Los Angeles Times.

 

A journalist working for an Arab TV network told me this has created quite a commotion in the Arab world, and that not everyone was in favor. He said that according to the majority of Arabs, Israel is a cruel occupier. The conference is clearly an Arab world event, and even though it was known that your presence here would irritate a lot of people – the Saudi foreign minister himself invited you, he said. "That says a lot. He has the power and courage to do things that lack consensus."

 

The Saudis with whom I spoke to during the conference responded with friendliness to my visit. "You are our guest," the official from the Information Ministry accompanying the journalists told me, "perhaps one day we too shall be your guests in your country."

 

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