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Is Saudi Arabia on a hazardous adventure?

The Levant News — by Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, Washington — At great risk, Saudi Arabia confronts Iran in rhetoric and on the battlefield in Syria and Yemen.

The National Council on US-Arab Relations, NCUSAR, is an established Washington intercultural agency focused on Arab Gulf interests. This year’s Iran meeting (October 14-15) was the 24th Arab-US Policymakers Conference.  As a media guest I came out of this two-day conference with three observations pertaining to current Mideast affairs: First, Arab Gulf bashing of Iran; second, Palestinians declare nonviolence to be their path to liberation; third, Saud Arabia leads Arabs in addressing Washington.

It is known that many Arab Gulf rulers view the Islamic (Shiite) Republic, Iran, as a predator state. Despite their outward acceptance of the (nuclear) Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Saudi statesmen continue to label Iran as a terrorist state. His Royal Highness Turki al Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the UK and to the US, set the anti-Iran mood of this Conference in his keynote speech.  Al Faisal blamed Iran for the two central crises in Syria and Yemen, for designs on Arab land, for seeking nuclear weapons, and for mobilizing sectarian divisions.  A second keynote speaker, United Arab Emirates’ Khalaf Al Habtoor, lambasted Iran and criticized President Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran.

Iran certainly has a problematic regime and a questionable record of relations with its neighbors, but the Saudis seem unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for antagonizing Iran in the past, their narrow understanding and practice of political Islam, their support of Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, and their intolerance toward Shiite minorities.  

The second observation pertains to deliberations on Palestine. In a session on The Palestinian Future, four panelists agreed that non-violence is the most effective strategy of resistance to Israel’s occupation. James Zoghbi, the President of the Arab American Institute, called for the deepening of the Palestinian nonviolence movement. Zoghbi rightly believes that Palestinians are able to end the occupation with “moral” force.  The Palestine Liberation Organization Representative, Maen Areikat, asserted that Israel is not taking the peace process seriously. He added that the current outbreak of violence in East Jerusalem reflects the un-sustainability of the occupation of Arab territories.  Sending a pertinent message, Tom Mattair, Director of Middle East Policy Council, wondered how Israel’s officials deny that settlement expansion undermines peace talks.

It is noteworthy that as the PLO leadership is finally backing strict adherence to nonviolence to achieve the two-state solution, the Palestinian ordinary people, observing irreversible realities on the ground, have started to ask for their simple human rights as residents in a single-state.

Saudi Arabia seems to have replaced Egypt as the most assertive Arab voice in Washington.  The Arab Gulf states, led by the Saudis, are lobbying collectively through the platform of the Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC). Excluding Yemen, the GCC is a union of these six Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. The GCC has marginalized the divided, Egyptian-led, Arab League, which is supposed to represent the entire Arab world. In fact the GCC is acting as if it were the European Union of the Arab World.

The moderating role of Oman was missing in this conference. The former US Ambassador to Oman, Richard Schmierer, drew attention to Oman’s neutral state position in the Iranian-Saudi conflict. Schmierer had a subtle reconciliatory message.

In conclusion, this conference has given me pause.  The experts should have advised the Saudis to forcefully invest in promoting their 2002 Arab Peace Plan rather than lead a counterproductive and ruthless, coalition war in Yemen. In contrast to the Saudis, Omanis are playing a useful role in the Gulf, searching for common ground between Persians and Arabs, Shiites and Sunnites. Regardless of the rhetoric against Iran, it was refreshing to see this impressive annual Arab gathering highlight the power of nonviolence as a strategy of conflict resolution.

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