Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said this week he would send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad to “explore” reopening its embassy in Baghdad – a step that Washington has long sought to add legitimacy to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The statement followed meetings in Jeddah with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Earlier in the week America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad – formerly ambassador to Iraq – criticized Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments in the Gulf for not doing all they could to support U.S. policy on Iraq. Specifically he accused them of supporting Sunni militias in Iraq and of failing to engage the al-Maliki government.
Iranian journalist Ali-Reza Nourizadeh, who directs the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London, says he thinks Ambassador Khalilzad’s criticism does not accurately reflect the “situation on the ground.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Nourizadeh reminds that the Saudis initially welcomed the changes in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, they gradually grew concerned about the “amount of Iranian involvement” in the Shi’a-led Iraqi government. He says the Saudis don’t want a neighbor that might call for an “uprising” by Saudi Arabia’s large Shi’a minority. So, unless Prime Minister al-Malaki can convince them he “genuinely wants to fight the militias,” Mr. Nourizadeh says he doubts “any support” will be forthcoming from Riyadh. In fact, last week The New York Times reported that officials in Washington say the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni militant groups in Iraq and that about 40 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq are Saudi. But Riyadh has denied the accusation.
During their joint visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the U.S. secretaries of State and Defense discussed arms sales of at least $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf nations in a bid to counter Iran’s influence in the region. Analysts say the fear of Iran’s ascendance unites Sunni Arab states with Washington, and even with Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he has no objections to the proposed U.S. arms sale to the Arab states, and he notes that Washington will offset the deal by increasing military aid to Israel. Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of The Forward says strengthening Saudi Arabia makes “good diplomatic sense.” He suggests that the fear in Washington, and maybe in Tel Aviv, too, is that the “moderate regimes” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan may eventually collapse, making way for an “extremist Islamist regime.”
Nadia Bilbassy, diplomatic correspondent for Al-Arabiya television, agrees that the U.S. attempt to bolster Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, makes sense. At the same time, she adds, these Sunni neighbors don’t want to see Iraq “disintegrate into chaos.” But Ms. Bilbassy says there are “conflicting statements” coming from the Bush administration – criticism of the Saudi role in Iraq coming from America’s U.N. ambassador and praise coming from the State Department concerning Riyadh’s “active engagement” in trying to cut off the flow of illicit funds to Sunni militants in Iraq. But even if Washington and Riyadh agree on the need to curb Iranian influence in the region, the two do not necessarily agree on other pressing issues, such as the Palestinian dilemma.
Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this week that Saudi Arabia would consider attending President Bush’s planned Israeli-Palestinian peace conference this fall, but it would need to deal with the “substance of peace, not just form.” And a pre-condition of Saudi attendance would be that the conference should tackle “final status issues.”
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