As the Bush administration moves towards disengagement in the Middle East from those regarded as extremist — including Syria, Iran, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, and Hezbollah in Lebanon — the result has been a vacuum of power left from the absence of traditional diplomatic channels. In the post Cold War era, this meant typically working with, and in the least, involving the United States. But in recent months as American policy becomes more rigid and inflexible, Middle Eastern diplomatic channels have rerouted outside of Washington and back into the Middle East proper. In this capacity, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the new bridge where the forces of moderation can work within the framework of Middle East reality — a reality where extremists unfortunately are popular and united — and work on successful compromises.
The Saud’s have also acted as the defacto go between for Iran and the West as issues continue to flair revolving supposed Iranian involvement in the Iraqi civil war, the pursuit of nuclear technology, and of the funding and support for Shiite proxy groups. Stated by the Washington Post:
Saudi diplomats, including former ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan, are also deeply engaged in talks with Iran. The contacts began with a visit to Saudi Arabia by Ali Larijani, the head of Iran’s national security council. Prince Bandar subsequently visited Tehran and, according to a report in the New York Times, King Abdullah received leaders of Hezbollah. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran back opposite sides in the escalating sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, but the talks show that both governments are interested in tamping them down. Though there have been no breakthroughs, the diplomacy seems to have succeeded, at least, in cooling the situation in Lebanon, where a Hezbollah campaign against the Saudi-supported, pro-Western government led to several days of violence last month.
The continuation of this was seen in early February in talks initially balked at by Condoleezza Rice but brokered by the Saud’s between the almost-at-civil-war Hamas and Fatah Palestinian political groups. Instead of direct mediation by the Bush administration, the middle ground is reinvented by the parties involved:
America is holding back from serious involvement while it sees what else Saudi Arabia can do. King Abdullah and his energetic security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former long-time Washington ambassador, may try to stick another feather in their caps at next month’s Arab League summit. They want to revive and perhaps refine the Arab League’s 2002 proposal for all Arab states to normalise relations with Israel if Israel withdraws from all the territories it occupied in 1967, both Palestinian and Syrian.
…So was the Fatah-Hamas deal in vain? And why did Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, fly all the way to Jerusalem to see Mr Abbas and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and on to Jordan to see America’s other Arab allies, to tell them something she could have fitted into an SMS text message?
While it is important that America acts against those committed to reckless ideology, it is increasingly important in the context of prolonged American involvement in Iraq and NATO involvement in Afghanistan that hostility does not boil over to conflict before it has the chance for diplomatic resolution. The ramifications of a sectarian Middle East become more visceral, the role of Saudi Arabia will grow as the leading voice as both a moderate country and the largest Sunni country.
Saudi Arabia’s Diplomacy, Washington Post.
Banking on the Saudis, Economist.
Decisions Deferred in Mideast Talks, Council on Foreign Relations.
Arab states watch Iraq with dread, BBC News.
A holy but puzzling alliance, Economist.