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At Riyadh, view from the summit

By inviting India as an observer to the Arab Summit, Saudi Arabia has signalled a recognition of this country’s emerging global status

Written by Rajendra Abhyankar |
March 29, 2007 12:25:52 am

The two-day Arab Summit, which began in Riyadh yesterday, to which India was invited for the first time, is symptomatic of the high-profile diplomacy recently pursued by Saudi Arabia in the region.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as the flag-bearer of Arab concerns over US inability to stem the pressure on Sunnis in Iraq or to come out with a rejuvenated effort to move the Israeli-Palestinian problem forward, given Israel’s intransigence in dealing with the Palestinian unity government. The Riyadh summit will mark the return of Saudi Arabia to the leadership of the Arab world post-9/11. Given the multiple impasses on every major problem — Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine — besetting the Arab world, the ability and willingness of Saudi Arabia to lead is now recognised by the US and the international community.

By inviting India as an observer at the Arab Summit, Saudi Arabia has signalled a recognition of this country’s emerging global status, its historically close relations with West Asia and the new dynamics in Saudi-Indian relations following King Abdul Aziz’s visit to New Delhi last year. This gives us the chance to play an important role in the initiatives expected after the Riyadh summit in a region of vital interest to our security and energy needs.

For the first time there is expectation that the Arab Summit could engender meaningful initiatives on Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian and on larger Arab themes like the promotion of internal democracy. The consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the Arabs will also be discussed. The question of spreading the oil wealth of OPEC members for promoting industrial, scientific and technological growth in the Arab world will be in focus too.

The dead-end on the Palestinian issue urgently needs to be resolved and is a key to a larger settlement in the region. Even the US is unable to get Prime Minister Olmert to deal with the Fatah-Hamas unity government, which has taken office almost a year after the elections. During this time the flow of all funds to the Palestinian Authority from the US and Israel has remained frozen, causing untold hardship to ordinary people. The EU is ready to take a more charitable view of the Hamas faction’s statements on renouncing ‘resistance’, respecting earlier accords, and on recognising Israel. Even US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, recently made it known that the US could deal with Fatah members of the government to pursue peace, a position at variance with that of the Olmert dispensation.

Saudi Arabia is once again expected at the summit to push its 2002 initiative, which calls for Israel’s complete withdrawal from all lands occupied in 1967, the sharing of Jerusalem as the joint capital, and the return of Palestinian refugees to a larger Palestine in return for normal relations between Israel and the entire Arab world. It was rejected outright by Israel earlier, but is now seen to have merit in its outlining of the final outcome. This time all parties have an interest in pushing forward the Saudi road map.

Iran’s rise in the region through its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon and its nuclear ambitions have worried the Arabs, especially the Sunni majority populations in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. It was bad enough that the aftermath of the US invasion exacerbated the religious divide in Iraq; Iran is accused of further stoking the fire. There have been inspired leaks of Saudi intention to come to the aid of the Iraqi Sunnis as well as on the need for the Arabs to develop their own nuclear capacity. At Riyadh, this subject would assume salience. Lebanon has also seen proxy jousting between the two countries intended to keep their proxies in power. Hezbollah’s aggressive moves threaten the Siniora government and the situation could result in another civil war. The issue is perceived as crucial by the Saudis, since the late Rafik Hariri was seen as a protege of the Saudi king.

The Riyadh summit remains the only hope the Arabs have to get their act together and the way the Saudis play it will determine its outcome. For India, it could prove to be a unique opportunity to leverage its good relations with all sides and bring its diplomatic experience and standing to a region which could have been its neighbour but for the waters of the Gulf.

The writer is director, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia

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