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Saudi Arabia Plays A Leading Role As Middle East Power Broker


Saudi Arabia played a leading role recently in brokering a deal for a Palestinian coalition government that is to include members of the rival Fatah and Hamas factions. Regional analysts have expressed guarded optimism that the Mecca Agreement following the negotiations might bring calm to violence-torn Gaza.

Jordanian journalist Rana Sabbagh calls Saudi Arabia an important power broker in the region. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Sabbagh points to the meeting in Mecca, which was hosted by Saudi Arabia, as evidence of its growing importance as a counterweight to Iran, even though many obstacles still lie ahead. She says the “growing Iranian threat in the region” has brought the Sunni Arab states together.

Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with al-Arabiya television, says that Saudi Arabia has enjoyed “political and diplomatic clout” in the Sunni Arab world since 1990, when the Taif agreement ended the 15-year-old civil war in Lebanon. Ms. Bilbassy says that Saudi Arabia’s willingness to talk with “the enemy” – whether it’s Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran – demonstrates Riyadh’s “political maturity” in the midst of a “very complex and dangerous situation” in the Middle East. She adds that, although peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel cannot eliminate the violence in Iraq, it might ease some of the current tension between the Arab world and Washington.

Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy thinks the Saudis are striving for a “louder voice” in the region because of their concern about Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, and they are trying to “undo the damage of the past few years” during which the United States “basically handed Iraq over to Iran.” And she adds, the Saudis are keeping an eye “on their own restive Shi’a minority.” As early as 2002, Mona Eltahawy reminds, then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah proposed a comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab states and Israel. At the end of next month, Saudi Arabia will host an Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh. At that meeting, Rana Sabbagh says, the Saudis are expected to revive the 2002 peace offer, whereby the Arab states would recognize Israel’s right to exist within safe boundaries in exchange for peace. However, many people are skeptical about how much the meeting can accomplish, given the political weakness of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are making some of their most public overtures ever to Israel in an effort to undercut Iran’s growing influence, contain violence in Iraq and Lebanon, and push for a Palestinian solution. This outreach appears to have Washington’s approval. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that six states in the Gulf – plus Egypt, Jordan, and Israel – are a new alignment of “moderates” to oppose “extremists” backed by Iran and Syria. On Monday Dr. Rice met with Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas in Jerusalem, and she says they reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution and an end to violence.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.