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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Peace, war or containment?

Great excitement emanates from the Israeli government at the prospect of Saudi Arabia’s attendance at the post-Ramadan Middle East peace summit as an early and perhaps unexpected prize of normalisation. However in the Kingdom the expectation of its attendance is balanced by the presumption of a firm party line stance by a middle ranking official who will merely reiterate what is wanted from Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians for there to be truly normalised relations with Saudi. There is also though a sense on the part of some Saudis that the Kingdom has some scope for influencing the US administration, and quiet confidence that it has played a significant part in ensuring that the summit will at least underline the importance of addressing the endgame issues that Bush referred to when announcing the conference last month. However, with little prospect of the detail of these issues being seriously addressed when or before the parties meet in late October, something that Saudi Arabia initially responded to the conference announcement by saying it wanted, then this is not the beginning of a process that the Kingdom any great hopes for. On the other hand the proposed conference is being viewed as having “Madrid” features, the multilateral peace conference launched in the wake of the Gulf war in 1991, which in effect recognised the celebrated “linkage” in terms of ending the occupation of territory, whether Kuwait or Palestine. Under the cover of international support for the planned conference, including that of the UN, then the Saudis will once again lend their diplomatic imprimatur to a multilateral conference. However, while the linkage this time is the slightly more confused one of the US need for a coalition to build success in Iraq and recognising that diplomatic effort on Palestine might contribute to it, this is hardly the stuff that motivated James Baker III in 1992. From a Saudi perspective, the substance on the part of the US (as well as Israel) is lacking. Schemes emanating from Israel involving swapping settlement blocs for parts of the heavily Arab populated Galilee add little lustre to the prospect of attendance. The wider context of Iraq, and therefore of containing Iran, however, is something that seems to have more cache here. In this respect the most significant recent event by far was the US announcement last week of a US$20bn arms package to the Kingdom. This, and the tussle over what Saudi is and isn’t doing regarding the presence of Saudi nationals in Iraq, and how opposed it is or isn’t to the current Iraqi government, were part of the background music to one recent, albeit fairly small, move from the Kingdom to “normalising” relations with Iraq. Considering opening an embassy, however, won’t bring peace to Iraq. Thus small steps, toward Israel, toward Iraq, but nothing that substantive from the Kingdom either. Meanwhile, the Saudi strategic alliance with the US against Iran is consolidated, providing reassurance to the Kingdom and shades of the 1980s, minus Saddam. However, this is not seen as war preparation but as a deepening of a defensive division in the Gulf, and that suits the Saudis very well.

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