Oil a factor in Saudi religious summit

Conference brings together over 400 delegates from 50 countries in bid to end strife within Islam.

saudi king abdullah (photo credit: AP [file])
saudi king abdullah
(photo credit: AP [file])
In what has been seen as a bid to secure geopolitical security at a time when oil prices are skyrocketing, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah launched a three-day Muslim conference Wednesday aimed at making peace within Islam. If successful, the conference, which brings together Shi'ites and Sunnis, would set the stage for a future interfaith mega-conference among members of the three monotheistic religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Over 500 Muslim delegates from about 50 countries, most of whom are Islamic scholars, have gathered in Mecca for the event. One of the days will be devoted to the subject of interfaith dialogue. The most surprising and significant participant in the three-day event is the Shi'ite cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads Iran's Assembly of Experts, the body that elects and can remove the Iranian Supreme Leadership. Abdullah walked into the hall Wednesday together with Rafsanjani, who later sat to the king's left on the stage. The Saudi ruler seemed to be sending a message that the Sunni Muslim kingdom does not have a problem with moderate Shi'ites like Rafsanjani. Saudi Arabia and mostly Shi'ite Iran are seen as top rivals for influence in the Middle East, standing on opposite sides of the political divide over Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. Moreover, Saudi Arabia's official Wahabi interpretation of Islam considers Shi'ites to be infidels - and days ahead of Wednesday's gathering a number of hardline Wahabi clerics issued a statement harshly condemning Shi'ites and Iran. Al-Qaeda condemned the conference. Its spokesman, Abu Yahya al-Libi, said of Abdullah via videotape that "He who is called the defender of monotheism by sycophantic clerics is raising the flag of brotherhood between religions … and thinks he has found the wisdom to stop wars and prevent the causes of enmity between religions and peoples." Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that according to high-ranking Saudi sources Abdullah was working toward the interfaith summit in careful, confidence-building stages. "First, the king will attempt to reach a consensus within Islam," said Rosen. "Then he will arrange a trilateral meeting later on with Christians and Jews." He added that it was still unclear whether Jewish religious leaders from Israel would be invited. "But I did relay a clear message that no significant dialogue could take place if an Israeli representative was not invited." Rosen admitted that interfaith was not the Saudis' primary goal. Rather there were geopolitical and economic motives behind the timing of the Saudi initiative. For instance, in an article that appeared in Stratfor, an on-line provider of geopolitical intelligence information, analyst George Friedman argued that the Saudi king's interfaith conference was aimed at maintaining geopolitical stability. "The Saudis are trying to reduce the threat of war in the region," wrote Friedman. "War is, at this moment, the single greatest threat to their interests. In particular, they are afraid of any war that would close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large portion of the oil they sell flows." The sharp increase in oil revenues also lent Saudi Arabia additional political strength, argued Friedman. "At current oil prices, the Saudis are absolutely loaded with cash. In the Arabian Peninsula as elsewhere, money buys friends: At present, the Saudis can overwhelm theological doubts with very large grants and gifts. "That means that conservative Sunnis who normally would oppose this kind of a conference are less apt to openly criticize it." Rosen said that despite the fact that the Saudis had ulterior motives in holding an interfaith conference, he still believed in the inherent value of such a dialogue. "I believe that face-to-face encounters can bring about a change in attitudes. And I believe that no religion is an island." This is the first time such an initiative has been proposed by a nation which has no diplomatic ties to Israel and a ban on non-Muslim religious services and symbols. His message, which has been welcomed welcomed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, is significant. The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends his words special importance and influence. The king said that Saudi Arabia's top clerics had given him the green light - crucial backing in a society that expects decisions taken by its rulers to adhere to the tenets of Islam. The kingdom and all other Arab nations except Egypt and Jordan do not have diplomatic relations with Israel and generally shun unofficial contacts. "You have gathered today to tell the whole world that... we are a voice of justice and values and humanity, that we are a voice of coexistence and a just and rational dialogue," Abdullah told the 500 Muslim delegates from 50 Muslim nations in his opening speech. He said the Islamic world faces difficult challenges from the extremism of some Muslims, whose aggressions "target the magnanimity, fairness and lofty aims of of Islam." Rafsanjani praised Abdullah, saying, "Our brothers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... have presented a great message to all humanity in the world. "Before we speak with other religions, we must speak among ourselves and reach an understanding on a particular Islamic path," he said, calling for greater understanding between Sunnis and Shi'ites. But Rafsanjani - a former Iranian president who now heads two of its most powerful clerical governing bodies - also injected politics into a gathering that Saudi Arabia has said is intended to focus purely on religion and interfaith dialogue. Rafsanjani said the Islamic world should resist the United States and not let it gain control of the natural resources of Muslim countries - a pointed comment in oil giant Saudi Arabia, a top ally of Washington. "Why should this tremendous group [Muslims] be weak before the International Arrogance?" Rafsanjani said, using a common term among Iranian leaders for the United States. "We do not want to use force or to be unjust but we don't want to hand over our rights to others." He said that the US was "greedy ... and [wants] to control our countries and to pressure us and plunder our wealth and resources."