Friday, December 14, 2007

RE: Saudi Arabia's Power Play

King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia has made a landmark gesture to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran by inviting the President to perform the ritual hajj to Mecca. Since the revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia has strictly controlled the number of pilgrims allowed from the predominantly Shiite Iran. Several times it has even banned Iranian pilgrims from attending the pilgrimage. Iranian attendance in the hajj has not been without problems, the 1987 riot which left hundreds dead being the most notable.

Times have changed it seems. The King has discussed providing Iran's fledgling nuclear programme with fuel and recently included the Islamic Republic in a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Iran, who has desperately lacked allies in the region, has embraced the overtures enthusiastically. As I discussed in my previous entry, Saudi Arabia is making a concerted effort to reestablish its moral and political dominance in the region. It is deeply worried about conflict in the war-torn Middle East spreading further into the Arabian Peninsula.

What the King has done must be understood as truly revolutionary. According to the Kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam, Shittes have been considered apostates, subject to the death penalty. His offer may be faced with opposition from the clerical community of Saudi Arabia who hold authority over the devout masses. King Abdullah is playing a dangerous political game. His authority derives from the prescriptions of wahibbist Islam and the support of the clerics. While we ought admire the King's peacemaking efforts in a region of the world which has seen more than its fair share of conflict, he will have to move cautiously.

By no means is the King without support in his reform efforts. The popular outcry in the case of the Shiite rape victim must lend further support to his attempts to reform the judiciary. King Abdullah has yet to face serious domestic opposition thanks in large part to the on-going war in Iraq. For various religious, political, and ideological reasons the large majority of the Muslim world oppose the U.S. military's presence in Iraq. Any move made by the King which furthers the peace process in the region will be welcomed. If nothing else, the King's diplomatic gestures appear to embrace the lesser of two evils. The current state of the region may even lead to another previously unthinkable proposition, the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel.

Annapolis has largely been ridiculed as the latest rendition in a string of failed summits and conferences purporting to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, while the speeches and joint declarations of Annapolis resemble their predecessors at Oslo and Camp David, the Annapolis conference differs in one very important aspect. Never before has the United States sought the input and aid of the Middle Eastern nations. Never before have the Arab nations of the Middle East entertained such a proposition. The very fact that Ayman al-Zawahri of al Qaeda has condemned the Arab nations for attending the conference shows the radical nature of such a change in policy.

It is doubtful that Annapolis by itself will solve the issue of a Palestinian state and Israeli sovereignty, but the Israelis now face pressure from a truly international community. The Palestinians no longer negotiate from a position of supreme disadvantage. Even if Annapolis is not the solution, ten years from now we may very well look back at the conference as the turning point in the process. Saudi Arabia's ability to reassert itself in regional politics may very well determine the success or failure of this current effort to resolve the 60 year-old conflict.