Arab leaders 'clear the air' in Riyadh

Egyptians, Saudis try to move Syria out of Iranian orbit.

mubarak assad king abdullah 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
mubarak assad king abdullah 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
Saudi Arabia hosted the leaders of Egypt and Syria on Wednesday, in an effort to persuade Damascus to move away from Iran and instead work with US-allied Arab countries to blunt Teheran's influence. Riyadh had hoped the one-day mini-Arab summit would help improve the frayed relations with Syria ahead of a larger Arab summit in Qatar later this month. The leaders discussed a number of issues in the Arab arena in addition to "clearing the air" and achieving reconciliation to unite Arab ranks, according to Saudi sources quoted in Arab press reports on Wednesday. The leader of another US ally, Kuwait, also attended the Saudi gathering, Kuwait's news agency reported. Saudi King Abdullah also held a bilateral meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Riyadh on Wednesday, according to the Saudi News Agency. The leaders discussed a number of topics of mutual interest, including "the prospects of cooperation between the two countries and ways of strengthening them in various fields," a Saudi source told the agency. Assad's visit to Riyadh, which was prompted by an invitation from Abdullah, was the first official visit in more than three years. Syria has been bitterly feuding with Egypt and Saudi Arabia over several political issues - especially its close alliance with Iran and with Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria deteriorated following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a Saudi citizen, in February 2005. Relations soured even more after Assad, following the Second Lebanon War, described leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as "half-men" for their failure to act to stop the IDF. Arab divisions were also brought to the fore during Israel's recent three-week military operation in Gaza against Hamas, which directly pitted those who sided with the Islamist movement, such as Syria, Iran and Qatar, against Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ahead of Wednesday's mini-summit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cast doubt whether the leaders would come to any agreement. Egypt has repeatedly accused Iran, which along with Syria backs Hamas, of trying to thwart Cairo's mediation efforts between rival Palestinian factions. Egypt's foreign minister also accused Teheran of trying to impose its control in the region. Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Egyptian state television on Tuesday that "Iran is manipulating Arab states and entities to increase its influence." After Wednesday's summit ended, the official Saudi SPA news agency said the participants agreed it "was a start of a new phase in relations in which the four nations will endeavor to serve Arab interests through cooperation" and strive for a "unified approach to Arab policies when confronting issues, especially the Palestinian question." The statement also said the meeting reflected the four leaders' efforts to "clear the air" and follow Abdullah's call to "leave past difference behind." It did not mention Iran. Wednesday's meeting in Riyadh is seen as the continuation of reconciliation efforts launched by Abdullah at the Kuwaiti economic summit in January following the Gaza conflict. The Saudi king has made limiting Iranian influence a top priority, recently urging Arab leaders to unite to curb Teheran's ambitions. Last week, Morocco severed ties with Iran, charging "intolerable interference" and trying to spread Shi'ite Islam in the Sunni Arab country. Al-Jazeera cited anonymous sources on Wednesday that said Qatar was not invited to the four-way summit in Riyadh due to Egyptian reservations over its attendance. Brenda Gazzar contributed to this report.