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(photo credit: AP [file])
This has been a busy month for the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud - surely one of the busiest of his life.
In less than 30 days the Saudi monarch
1. Made a ground-breaking visit to London, flying over much of his royal court on six jumbo-jets and staying in Buckingham Palace;
2. Followed this up with an even more unprecedented call on the Vatican to talk with Pope Benedict XVI, the first ever meeting between a Catholic pontiff and the guardian of the Moslem holy places;
3. Hosted the latest OPEC summit in Riyadh earlier this week, using the occasion to declare that the organization should act "moderately and wisely" and that oil should not be used as a "tool of war" - thus implicitly rebuking more aggressive statements made earlier by Venezuela's pugnacious President Hugo Chavez; and
4. Met today with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who traveled to Saudi Arabia in his first visit abroad since declaring a national state of emergency in his country, in an attempt to ease the growing political crisis there.
Oh, and he also took time to approve the granting of $100 million in aid to cyclone-ravaged Bangladesh, and three times that amount to fund research into global warming.
One might easily get the distinct impression that Abdullah has been on a compressed public-relations blitz of late to show the world, especially the West, that the Saudi kingdom has a constructive role to play in the international arena.
All of the above, though, might seem merely a prelude when Riyadh makes a final decision, expected to come during the Arab League summit over the next two days, over whether it will participate in some fashion at next week's Annapolis summit. It's worth asking now what factors might play in that decision - and what it might mean both for the Israeli-Palestinian process, and for Saudi Arabia itself.
Most recent reports have cast doubt on the Saudis' participating, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas emerging from meeting with Abdullah in Riyadh last week expressing pessimism about Annapolis's prospects. The Saudis have said all along they will not take part unless "core issues" are addressed by Israel in the agenda, rather than it serve simply a prelude to negotiations. Given Riyadh past positions on those issues, it was unlikely from the start that Israel could satisfy these demands.
It's worth remembering that the Saudis played a distinctly unconstructive role in the 2000 Camp David talks, in particular expressing their reluctance to support any agreement that recognized any Israeli interest in any part of Jerusalem over the 1967 lines, especially the Temple Mount and environs.
In February 2002, in what appeared to be a dramatic departure from its largely spectator status in the peace process, then-crown prince Abdullah presented New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman with a proposal - known subsequently as the Arab Peace Plan - in which in return for Israel committing itself to "full withdrawal from all occupied territoryâ€¦ including in Jerusalem," it would receive "full normalization of relations" with the Arab League states, including Saudi Arabia.
As Middle East expert Robert Satloff noted at the time, "Any time a Saudi talks of normalizing to any extent is welcome, it is good news" - and Abdullah's comments might have been constructive prior to Camp David. But coming in the middle of the intifada, when Israel was confronted by a Palestinian leadership it no longer trusted in any degree, the offer was "too little, too late," what Satloff called a "quaint irrelevancy in the real world of politics and diplomacy."
It is easy to understand what motivated the Saudis at the time to take a more active role in the peace process, at least on the level of public relations (a newspaper columnist being an unorthodox conduit by which to conduct diplomacy). This was shortly after 9/11, when Riyadh's public image in the West was at an all-time low for its long-time sponsorship of the brand of fundamentalist Islam that had led the hijackers - 15 of them Saudi nationals - into the arms of al-Qaida.
These days, it is the growing threat of Iranian influence that is motivating Abdullah in his recent charm offensive. The Saudis want to be as much in the drivers' seat as possible when it comes to policy re Teheran; they fervently want to contain Iran, while at the same time desperately want to prevent any outright confrontation with it, either involving themselves or anyone else.
This has been the House of Saud's preferred policy throughout its history in dealing with radical Islam, both domestically and abroad: accommodating, co-opting, and at times even funding it (as with the Taliban), as long it poses no direct threat to its own rule - at which point it will act ruthlessly to protect its own interests.
In a post-9/11 world though, that kind of strategy can no longer be acceptable to the West, and certainly can be only detrimental when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A concrete example of that was the Saudi mediation last year between Hamas and Fatah, leading to the so-called Mecca Agreement that established the brief-lived unity government between them. The result - a temporary estrangement between the PA and Israel and the eventual take-over of Gaza by Hamas - amply illustrates the bankruptcy of the Saudi approach.
What, at any rate, would "normalization" between Israel and Saudi Arabia mean even if the former were to accept the Arab Peace Plan? Saudi Arab is no "normal" nation, and neither are the ties between it and any Western nation. The economic benefits the latter derive from accommodating Riyadh may be enough reason for them to overlook the abysmal Saudi record on human rights, and its incubation of fundamentalist Islam. But for Jerusalem that trade-off would never pay, certainly not for the price Riyadh is asking of it.
It's worthwhile to note that even as Abdullah has been paying court in Buckingham Palace and the Vatican, a domestic incident in his own backyard has been drawing international condemnation. A young Saudi woman who was abducted and gang-raped by seven men, subsequently found herself convicted by an Islamic court to undergo 90 lashes of the whip; when she publicly objected to this horrific sentence, the punishment was doubled to 200 lashes.
Her lawyer was then disbarred and imprisoned for pleading her case to the media. Abdullah has resisted all pleas to intervene in the affair, not wanting to challenge his own Islamic courts.
Israel, of course, would and should welcome any Saudi participation in Annapolis as a step in the right direction. But Riyadh shouldn't delude itself that "normalization of relations" with the nation that is still the ground-zero of Islamic fundamentalism hasn't quite the currency it would like to believe it does.
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