House of Saud and Fog
by Stephen Schwartz
SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE, having begun her tour of the Middle East crisis zones, may face a dangerous trap set by a familiar "friend"--the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday, July 23, a delegation of Saudis visited the White House. It included the familiar publicity expert Adel al-Jubeir, as well as foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and ambassador to the U.S. Turki al-Faisal. The message was predictable: the United States should impose an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. The Saudi approach suggests that America should pressure Israel to back off its campaign to neutralize Hezbollah.
But the Saudi initiative has other implications. The most obvious is that the Saudis wish to restore their past status as America's main broker to the Arab world--without ever accounting for the financing and recruitment from within their borders of al Qaeda as well as the contingent of murderous terrorists operating in Iraq. But in truth, the Saudis have little to offer and can deliver nothing in the present Lebanon conflict. The Saudis do not have much leverage over Syrians or Shias, notwithstanding rhetoric about common Arab interests.
Saudi intentions remain dubious in general. On Saturday, July 22, in a debate on the U.S.-financed Arab language television station al-Hurra, which broadcasts to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, I was repeatedly told by Saudi advocates that democratization of the Middle East has failed, that the transformation of Iraq has cracked up, and that Condoleezza Rice is irrelevant.
Behind this propaganda one can perceive a Saudi gambit for the United States to cease supporting the Shia majority in Iraq, and a return to business as usual in the Middle East. But the United States and Israel must adequately distinguish Sunni terrorists from Sunni friends, as well as Shia terrorists, like Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, from Shia friends, like Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq.
The Riyadh authorities are in a bind. When Nasrallah launched his provocation across Israel's northern border, the Muslim world, like the rest of the planet, was caught by surprise. On July 13, the Saudis publicly denounced Nasrallah for "adventurism." The official Saudi Press Agency commented, "A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them . . . These elements should bear the responsibility for their irresponsible actions and they alone should end the crisis they have created." But while much of the Arab and Muslim world, almost two weeks later, still appears stunned and silent in the wake of events, the Saudis soon had to contend with accusations that they had sold out the Palestinians. Now the Saudis are attempting to resume their balancing act, bargaining with the United States in a manner that holds anti-Israel incitement in reserve, while talking humanitarianism.
Saudi "humanitarianism" has always brought the extremist doctrines of Wahhabism along with it, whether in Afghanistan, the Balkans, or even in the United States, through the illicit operations of Saudi charities. Media chatterboxes have begun a mantra in favor of "moderate Arab states"--i.e. the Saudis--and their role in alleviating suffering in Lebanon. But while Saudi Arabia can be a moderate state in its official relations with the West, it can never be a moderate Islamic power unless it breaks with Wahhabism, the inspirer of al Qaeda.
Saudi King Abdullah has given some notable signs that he favors a new role and image for his country. If Saudi Arabia wants to play a constructive role in resolving the latest confrontation, it should advocate forthrightly for Arab normalization of relations with Israel and an end to terrorism by Hamas, Hezbollah, and other armed "resistance" movements.
Otherwise, the Saudis will only get in the way of American policy, and will constitute a diversionary obstacle for Secretary Rice.