Inept Saudi Arabia unfit to lead Arabs

Since King Salman came to power, the kingdom has sought to assume the region's political leadership.

The 28th Arab League summit held in Jordan on March 29 exposed, once again, the weakness of this potentially powerful bloc of 22 states. The League’s current troubles stem from deep differences on the war in Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the other Gulf states support insurgents seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon want to see him stay in power until the war ends and the country is stabilised.

There is also a growing uneasiness among Arab leaders over the stalled Saudi-led war in Yemen which is devastating West Asia's poorest country and drawing in other Arab actors. While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became a main contributor of troops early in the two-year campaign, Khartoum has recently deployed 6,000 fighters from the notoriously brutal Janjaweed militia to Aden port to back up the UAE contingent, adding Sudan to the coalition.

Since King Salman bin Abdel Aziz succeeded his more cautious half-brother Abdullah in 2015, the kingdom has sought to assume political leadership of the region, a role asserted by Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser not only won over the Arab public from the Gulf to the Atlantic but also became a founding father, along with India's Jawaharlal Nehru, of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Until Salman took the throne, Riyadh had been largely satisfied with securing less ambitious objectives through “checkbook diplomacy,” although the Saudis did wage war in Yemen during the 1960s. 

Saudi Arabia’s incompetent intervention in the war in Syria and failure to defeat Yemeni rebels should demonstrate that the kingdom is unfit to lead the Arab world. Nevertheless, King Salman and his favourite son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, have been encouraged to embark on further deadly and destructive adventures. Instead of reining them in, the Arabs have given the Saudis carte blanche.

The summit adhered to Riyadh’s agenda by condemning “foreign interference” in Arab affairs without naming Sunni Saudi Arabia’s arch rival, Shia Iran. While Turkey was asked to withdraw its forces from Iraq, nothing was said about Turkish tanks and troops occupying strategic territory in northern Syria.

Turkey is, after all, allied with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the campaign to oust Assad using jihadi militias, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda offshoots. Other external powers interfering in Arab affairs include the US, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Belgium, and Israel. Like Turkey, they are on the same side as the oil-rich Saudis.

Reconciliation between Riyadh and Cairo was achieved at the summit. This was signalled by an invitation to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to visit the kingdom. al-Sisi secured this goal by warning non-Arab powers against seeking “confessional or territorial domination.” His use of these words were intended to warn Iran that it would face a united Arab world if it continues its intervention in Syria, Iraq, and, allegedly, Yemen.

Iran is providing troops to reinforce the Syrian army in its battles with a range of insurgents. Iran is the closest ally of the Shia fundamentalist-dominated regime in Baghdad and it is accused of backing Shia rebels in Yemen.

Egypt forgiven
Relations had been strained by Egypt’s support for Assad and for failing to hand over to Saudi Arabia the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir claimed by Riyadh. Egypt had also called for lifting Syria’s suspension from the League. The Saudis responded with a six-month suspension of oil shipments to Egypt. According to Saudi Aramco, oil deliveries will resume shortly. Egypt is forgiven, for now.

Palestine was the one issue on which there was no disagreement. The Arabs called for the revival of “serious and productive peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians” and reaffirmed the Arab commitment to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. They also urged for action on last December’s UN Security Council resolution 2334, branding as illegal the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and demanding a halt to all settlement activity.

If the Saudis are serious
about assuming leadership, they should have been more assertive on Palestine. They could have revived their 2002 peace plan which proposed full Arab relations with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967.

By demanding international and Israeli adherence to this plan, the Saudis and the summit would have made it clear that continued Israeli colonisation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank — land Palestinians demand for their state — must halt as it makes peace with Israel impossible.

The Arab leaders, represented by 15 heads of state, and seven senior ministers, urged the US not to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, where 86 missions are located, and warned Israel against taking unilateral steps in Jerusalem.

During the election campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump had pledged to move the embassy, a long-standing demand of Israel and its po­werful US friends. Unless Saudi Arabia, as the Arab world’s aspiring leader, makes Arab opposition quite clear and, perhaps, suggests sanctions, Trump is unlikely to pay attention.

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