NEW YORK - Saudi Arabia’s king expressed support for peace in the Middle East at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, but did not suggest that Riyadh was likely to soon follow the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel.
“Peace in the Middle East is our strategic option,” King Salman bin Abdulaziz told the virtual forum in a videotaped message. “We will spare no effort to work together towards achieving a bright future where peace, stability, prosperity and co-existence among all the region’s peoples prevails.”
The “region’s peoples” include Israel, with whom the Saudis do not have relations. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump predicted after the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, that Riyadh would follow suit “at the right time.”
But in his UNGA remarks Wednesday, King Salman reiterated the long-held Saudi position in support of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, with East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. He also expressed support for the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offered normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state.
Saudi king: Outreach to Iran failed
On Iran, the Sunni Muslim king said his government has extended its hand in peace to the majority Shiite country in the past, but “to no avail.” The two regional powers have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen since 2015. Salman said Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched more than 300 ballistic missiles and over 400 armed drones into Saudi territory since the start of the conflict. He also criticized Tehran for exploiting the 2015 nuclear deal to fuel its “expansionist projects” in the region.
“Our experience with the Iranian regime has taught us that partial solutions and appeasement did not stop its threats to international peace and security,” Salman said.
It is this joint concern over Iran that many regional analysts believe could ultimately, formally bring the Saudis and Israelis together.
Iran’s U.N. mission spokesperson, Alireza Miryousefi, rejected what he called the Saudi's monarch's "baseless allegations,” Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the virtual General Assembly in New York, Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan met for the first time Wednesday with his UAE counterpart, Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, at her office.
An Israeli spokesperson said they “stressed the importance of increasing cooperation between the two countries in order to expand the benefits of peace in the Middle East.”
Helping hand for Lebanon
Also Wednesday, the U.N. secretary-general and the French foreign minister co-chaired a virtual meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon. The tiny nation is struggling with a confluence of crises — economic, political, COVID-19 — and now a humanitarian one, following the devastating August 4 explosion in the Port of Beirut that tore through half the capital.
“This latest tragedy must be a wake-up call,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “Eleven months after so many took to the streets calling for change, we hope for tangible steps to implement economic, social and political reforms.”
The U.N. chief joined members of the group in urging Lebanon’s leaders to unite in support of swift formation of a new government able to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people and the challenges the country faces.
In his videotaped message to the General Assembly session, Lebanese President Michel Aoun did not address the pressing issue of forming a government. Instead he tried to consolidate the outpouring of international support in the aftermath of the blast.
"The soundest solution may be to divide the devastated area into geographical zones and let every country that wishes to help commit to a specific zone and undertake its reconstruction directly,” he suggested.
Iraqi leader: Change takes time
Iraq, like Lebanon, has seen anti-government protests in the past year. Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged his people’s desire to end corruption and for broad reforms. He said change is underway but needs time for results.
“They want good governance,” he said of protesters. “They want the new government to shoulder lofty responsibilities. We need, however, structural reforms in the political, economic and management spheres.”
In a shift from recent years, long-running conflicts in Syria and Libya that have caused tremendous humanitarian and displacement crises registered barely more than a passing reference of concern from regional leaders.
“We call on our Libyan brothers to work together under the auspices of the U.N. to overcome its current crisis and to meet the aspirations of the Libyan people, and also to reject any foreign intervention which might undermine the sovereignty of Libya,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria, which is Libya’s eastern neighbor.