Madawi Al-Rasheed
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
April 6, 2011 - 12:00am

The Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah (king since 2005) and announced during the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, is hard to resurrect amidst revolutions and protests in the region. Not only was the initiative a stillborn baby, but over time it became a corpse in need of a death ritual. We all know how important such rituals are for the living, but unfortunately, the illusion of peace persists while the reality attests that "no solution has become the solution".

For a long time, championing the Palestinian cause with either the threat of war, large economic handouts, peace initiatives or even simple delusional rhetoric has been Arab dictators' most favorite road to celebrity status. Turkey and Iran are the contest's most recent arrivals. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia's king and other aspiring rulers, this road has become a dead end. Neither the Palestinians nor the Arab masses are impressed by previous performance.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia proposed peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. He pressed for the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and called for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Israel did not accept. Five years later, the initiative's revival in March 2007 did not bring tangible results.

The aging 87-year-old Saudi monarch is a king of transition. It will not be long before a new king, most probably from the small circle of the seven Sudayri princes, replaces him. This will not bring about major Saudi foreign policy shifts vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Saudi Arabia is not in a position to activate its involvement in conflict resolution at this time for several reasons.

Despite Saudi largesse, the country's influence has been shrinking in the Arab world. In Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, and more recently Egypt, the Saudi leadership lost acumen, long-established on the basis of sacred geography and black gold. More than any other Arab country, Saudi Arabia had a lot to lose as a result of Iran's rising influence in the region. Its equally aging foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, is looking frail and can hardly inspire confidence in a region that is experiencing a sudden political awakening triggered by youth bulges.

Since 2003, Saudi Arabia has lost all hope of bringing Iraq back to the Arab fold. Its involvement in the Iraqi elections proved futile in the face of Nour al-Maliki's new iron fist. When revolutions broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, Saudi Arabia became increasingly associated with a bygone era. Hosting one of the Arab world's most corrupt and brutal dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, meant that Saudi Arabia had begun to be seen as a safe haven for deposed autocrats. Saudi Arabia lost a close ally when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak packed his suitcases and moved to Sharm al-Sheikh. The king was so devastated he offered to compensate Mubarak for the loss of US aid.

The country's relations with Syria have been fraught with suspicion and mistrust since Israel's war on Lebanon in 2006. When protests broke out in Deraa two weeks ago, Syrian sources alluded to a Saudi conspiracy against the regime in Damascus. Bashar al-Assad had called Arab leaders half men when they blamed Hizballah for the Lebanon conflagration. The Saudis went into a frenzy. Personal insults of this kind have a lasting impact on inter-Arab personalized politics. Saudi Arabia had always aspired, though unsuccessfully, to wean Syria off Iran's largesse.

Backing one Palestinian faction against another and remaining silent over the Israeli blockade of Gaza did little to endear the Saudi leadership to substantial sections of the Palestinian population. From the perspective of the Arab street, Turkey cared more about Palestinians than did the Saudi king. Since the 1979 Camp David agreement, Saudi Arabia has aspired to replace Egypt as the main orchestrator of a different peace. With its aging leadership and fading diplomacy, it has stagnated and become more and more irrelevant to the persistent conflict.

Today Saudi Arabia is looking to consolidate its position, not on the shores of the Mediterranean, but on those of the Persian Gulf. It moved troops to the small island of Bahrain to save the ruling al-Khalifa family and crush a peaceful protest movement demanding more political rights. Its own Shiite and Sunni population is looking increasingly agitated and ready to engage in street protest.

As the Bahraini demonstrations were being crushed, a more deadly protest movement started in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has long supported the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but can no longer rest assured that he will remain in power. Saudi Arabia is facing external threats from its poor southern neighbor that has an armed population not so appreciative of Saudi interference in its affairs. From the Zaydi Huthis in the north to the separatists in the south, Yemenis have come to associate Saudi Arabia with meddling.

If the neighbors are troubled and troubling, the interior of the country is looking even bleaker. Inspired by the peaceful Egyptian pro-democracy movement, Saudi activists circulated more than two lengthy petitions calling for constitutional monarchy. Others called for the fall of the regime. Since March 11, the so-called "Day of Rage" organized by Saudi Facebook activists, the security sources have arrested more than 160 men and women, according to Human Rights Watch. Feeling the heat, the king distributed benefits worth $36 billion. Heavy policing and threats of the wrath of God from mosque minarets ensured that the demonstrations fail. Yet the leadership remains on edge. It has resorted to a "wait and see" policy at home and is flexing its muscles against the Shiites of Bahrain.

The internal Saudi scene, coupled with major external challenges, will confine Saudi Arabia to a marginal role in resurrecting the API in the near future. The only external force that can make a difference in this ongoing conflict, is in fact not Saudi Arabia, but a democratic Egypt. It may take several years to stabilize and return to its major regional role. But when it comes back, Egypt can make a difference, especially with a new political leadership untarnished by its contribution to the Israeli injustices inflicted on Palestinians.

In the long term, the obstacle remains the increasingly religious right-wing state of Israel. The growing "Judaization" of the conflict means that crises persist as compromises disappear. It has never been easy to divide the sacred or share it, but political compromises are always possible.

If there is a change in Israeli internal politics towards more rationality and away from religious mystification, Palestinians and Israelis will have a better chance of reaching the conclusion that they alone can make a lasting peace. Neither the Saudis nor other external players can offer them what they cannot offer each other.

The "no solution solution" may not be a viable option in times of regional turmoil. These autocrats have lived off this conflict for too long. To wait for Egypt is also not an option. Under the revolutionary law of contagion that has taken the region by surprise, the Palestinian human crisis may erupt in the face of Israel at any moment. Saudi Arabia will not be relevant as it is busy expanding eastward towards the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has many dilemmas. At the moment, Palestine is not one of them.


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