Monday, 1 February 2010

America's other Middle East ally

Last Thursday representatives of some 80 nations gathered in London to attend the conference on Afghanistan.

While in London, ostensibly concerned with aligning military and civilian resources behind an Afghan-led political strategy to divide the insurgency and build regional cooperation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Saudi and United Arab Emirate officials to discuss the Middle East peace process.

The fact is that Saudi Arabia, a long-standing ally of the United States, could play a critical role in helping Washington achieve its aims in the region. Saudi's key role in US strategic thinking was underlined in June 2009. President Obama, touring the Middle East ahead of the historic Cairo speech in which he held out the promise of a new era in American-Muslim relations, suddenly added Riyadh – Saudi's capital – to his itinerary. He was greeted by King Abdullah, and they discussed, inter alia, how to advance the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Last Thursday Hillary Clinton carried the discussions a stage further in talks with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, and Abdullah bin Zayid, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The states of the Gulf Cooperative Council, the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait,
Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) could be said – a trifle optimistically, perhaps – to represent an island of stability in a sea of instability. For while Saudi has more or less gained control over domestic terrorism, the GCC countries all face external security challenges ranging from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan, to Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. As a consequence the Gulf states are becoming increasingly willing to play a more central role in conflict management. Saudi Arabia has led the way with its increased willingness to mediate, not only between Iraqi sectarian groups and in Sudan, but in the Palestinian issue.

Saudi's direct involvement in Israel-Palestine goes back to the Arab League summit conference held in Beirut in March 2002. King Abdullah, who took over the throne on the death of King Fahd in 2004, was then Saudi's Crown Prince, and had been effectively running the kingdom since 1996. On the 20th of March, a few days ahead of the summit, he electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). However, Abdullah did not specify whether refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendants of those who left the region in 1948, were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created.

The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, including during the 2007 summit.

Israel has made no official response to the proposals, but reactions have divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the plan outright; previous prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking. The willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact, and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate."

Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel's president, Shimon Peres, last May. Peres applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel as reflected in the Saudi initiative, though "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording … it doesn't have to agree to every word."

But already, in March 2009, shortly after President Obama took office and optimism was the order of the day, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Saudi initiative into its Middle East policy.

One solid reason for America's "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia.

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