Regaining the initiative

28 March 2002

In August 1977, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia delivered a document to Washington of high significance for the Carter administration's bid to broker a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The document stated that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was ready to participate in multilateral negotiations with Israel on a peace agreement on the basis of UN resolution 242, and would formally renounce terrorism. The Palestinian pledge was underwritten by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. Crown prince Fahd, as he was then, had been moved to make this initiative by the signals from the new US president that he believed the creation of a Palestinian homeland to be an essential part of any regional peace settlement.

The Saudi crown prince's efforts at that time fell by the wayside. The US opted to go with the separate peace initiative of the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. The new right-wing Israeli government under Menahem Begin meanwhile embarked on an aggressive drive to expand Jewish colonisation of the West Bank, and to destroy the PLO in Lebanon. The current Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, played key roles in both enterprises, first as agriculture minister and then as minister of defence.

Now once again it has fallen to the heir to the Saudi throne to come forward with a fresh set of proposals to resolve a problem which, for all Sharon's efforts, has not gone away and still poses a serious threat to regional stability. Crown Prince Abdullah made his first moves last summer after he had become exasperated at the Bush administration's hands-off attitude to the Palestinian problem. When President Bush realised how deeply affected his key Gulf ally was by the plight of the Palestinians, he decided that Washington had no option but to engage with the issue.

High-level discussions between Saudi and US officials produced a new blueprint for peace that would have been proclaimed in late-September had not the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington intervened, according to accounts subsequently published in the Washington Post. Bush eventually did come out with a statement calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, but by January 2002, the momentum had been lost, and the US was once more in its familiar position four square behind Israel.

With his new initiative, Crown Prince Abdullah has sought to revive a proper Arab role in a peace process that, since the 1993 Oslo accords, has pitted the Palestinians against the Israelis in an unequal contest presided over by the US as a not entirely impartial referee. His intention has also been to cast the Arab and Muslim worlds in a more positive light, with a genuine commitment to peace. 'I thought of this initiative to serve Islam, the religion of peace, love, brotherliness and morality, and also to establish that the Muslims and the Arabs are promoters of peace, not promoters of war, contrary to the view previously held by some that the Muslims and the Arabs do not want peace,' Crown Prince Abdullah told a Riyadh seminar on Islam and the Dialogue of Civilisations on 23 March.

The unique selling point of the initiative has been the crown prince's direct references to the need for Arab states to have normal relations with Israel once a peace settlement has been achieved. The fact that the point has been made by someone of the stature of Crown Prince Abdullah marks an important concession to the Western demand for the Arabs to accept Israel. 'If the Israelis accept [the initiative] we will live in peace and security and there will be no conflict between us,' he said at the Riyadh meeting.

The Saudi initiative has brought the Arab states collectively back into the reckoning in the search for a lasting peace settlement. The Arab states tolerated the Oslo process on the grounds that it was entered into willingly by the representatives of the Palestinian people. However, such is the degradation of the Palestinians today that the Arab states have been unable to remain as mute bystanders.

Not all the elements in the Saudi initiative have been to the liking of all the Arab parties involved. There has been vigorous debate about the extent of the compromises that will have to be made on Arab claims on East Jerusalem and on the handling of the issue of the Palestinian right of return. Syria has also been anxious to make sure that there will be no question of Arab normalisation with Israel until the occupation of the Golan Heights is ended. President Mubarak of Egypt has not looked entirely content with the shift in the region's political centre of gravity from Cairo to Riyadh. However, the overriding message coming out of the Beirut summit has been that of a unity of Arab purpose in addressing the fundamental issue of Israeli occupation of Arab land.

The other major issue facing the Arab leaders in Beirut was Iraq. There has been growing suspicion in the Arab world that the present US efforts to broker a ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israelis are little more than an exercise in pacifying this corner of the Middle East so as to allow the US to devote all its energies to Iraq. By the same token, Iraqi officials have been seeking to mobilise Arab support in exchange for Baghdad falling into line behind the Saudi peace initiative on Palestine. Iraq's charm offensive towards its fellow Arab states also has a commercial element. The opening up of the Iraqi market over the past few years has provided an increasingly important source of export business for contractors and manufacturers in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia which their governments will be anxious to preserve.

Most security analysts in the West view the Iraqi attempts to stave off an American onslaught as merely delaying the inevitable. 'It is not a question of if the US will attack Iraq, but when,' Magnus Ranstorp of the UK-based Centre for the Study of Terrorism & Political Violence told MEED's security conference in London on 25 March. However, the strong stand Saudi Arabia has taken on the Palestine question has clearly made an impression on the Bush administration, and it is still by no means certain that the US would proceed with its hazardous Iraqi enterprise if faced with concerted Arab opposition. If the Arab leaders manage to persuade Iraq to readmit UN inspectors, the American case for military action would be further undermined.

The concern of Crown Prince Abdullah to spare the Middle East yet more bouts of violence and instability can also be seen in the context of the region's urgent need for a period of economic expansion. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long trailed other part of the developing world in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). In the era of huge oil export surpluses in the late 1970s and early 1980s it could be argued that this was not important. However, a glance at Saudi Arabia's finances over the past 15 years shows that oil revenues alone are no longer sufficient to sustain the investment required for infrastructure and job creation. Attracting FDI is now one of the central stated objectives of Saudi economic policy, and Crown Prince Abdullah has since 1998 overseen radical changes in the structure of the economy in pursuit of this goal. Figures issued by the World Bank at the start of March suggest that Saudi Arabia is starting to have some success in this area, as the kingdom accounted for the lion's share of FDI into the region, at $1,000 million out of a total $2,600 million. Building on that achievement will be difficult as long as the region continues to be a byword for interminable conflict.

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