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Why Did Abdullah Hit Bush?

The Bush White House, shocked by King Abdullah's description of the US presence in Iraq as "illegal" occupation, on March 29 demanded a Saudi explanation. King Abdullah also said on March 28 that, unless Arab states settled their differences, foreign powers like the US would continue to dictate the region's politics. His speech underscored Riyadh's growing differences with the Bush administration as the Saudis took on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at US urging.

In addition, King Abdullah invited President Iranian Ahmadi-Nejad to Riyadh on March 3, while the Americans wanted him shunned. But King Abdullah is said to have used tough words with Ahmadi-Nejad, warning him to moderate his radical rhetoric and telling him American warships were not "vacationing" in the Gulf. And in trying to settle the tensions in Lebanon, the Saudis have been willing to negotiate with Iran and Hizbullah. Recently the Saudi king cancelled an April appearance at a White House dinner in his honour. The official reason given was a scheduling conflict.

Mustapha Hamarneh, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, says the Saudis were sending Washington a message, adding: "They are telling the US they need to listen to their allies rather than imposing decisions on them and always taking Israel's side". In his speech, the king said: "In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism. The blame should fall on us, the leaders of the Arab nation, with our ongoing differences, our refusal to walk the path of unity. All that has made the nation lose its confidence in us".

King Abdullah had not publicly spoken so harshly about the US-led military intervention in Iraq before, and his remarks suggested that his alliance with Washington may be less harmonious than Bush administration officials had been hoping. Since last summer the Bush administration has asserted that a realignment was occurring in the Middle East, one which groups Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon along with Israel against Iran, Syria and the militant groups they back: Hizbullah and Hamas. Washington had urged Saudi Arabia to take a leading role in such a realignment but was finding itself disappointed by the results.

Arab analysts say the king's speech was a response to Secretary Rice's call on March 26 for Arab governments to "begin reaching out to Israel". Many read Rice's comments as suggesting that Washington was backing away from its support for the Arab peace plan. Israel wants the Arabs to make changes in the terms, most notably the call for a right of return for Palestinian refugees to what is today Israel.

With regard to Iraq, the Saudis are paying attention to internal American politics. The Democrats during the week managed to pass legislation calling for a timeline for US withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for further funding for the war. After the Nov. 7 mid-term elections in which the Democrats won control over the US Congress, Saudi officials realised that the upset could spell major changes for the Middle East: a possible US pullout from Iraq, fuelling further instability and, more important, allowing Iran to extend its influence in the region.

The New York Times quoted Adel al-Toraifi, a columnist with close ties to the Saudi government, as saying: "I don't think that the Saudi government has decided to distance itself from Bush just yet. But I also think that the Saudis have seen that the ball is moving into the court of the Democrats, and they want to extend their hand to the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi" - who is visiting Damascus on April 3 despite White House objection. Turki al-Rasheed, who runs an organisation promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia, said King Abdullah's message was that "we may be moving on the same track, but our ends are different", adding: "Bush wants to make it look like he is solving the problem. The king wants to actually solve the problems".

Washington, however, justified its occupation of Iraq. White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "The US is in Iraq at the request of the Iraqis and under a UN mandate. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong".

Commenting on King Abdullah's "illegal" occupation charge, US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns on March 29 told a Senate hearing: "We were a little surprised to see those remarks. We disagree with them". Secretary Rice scheduled a telephone call with Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, who was travelling to Riyadh. A US administration official was on March 30 quoted as saying the State Department had resisted going straight to Rice's counterpart, Prince Saud, so as to try to lower the temperature of the rhetoric. The official said Rice planned to question Jubeir about the Saudi monarch's remarks.

The Bush administration had been bending over backwards in recent weeks not to criticise Saudi Arabia, partly because it was hoping that Saudi leadership will help stem the rising influence of Iran. And for the moment, Saudi and other Arab officials said the king's statements should be seen in that context, an effort to position himself to get the leverage he needed in the Arab world.

A Saudi official in Riyadh with close ties to the royal family was on March 30 quoted as saying of King Abdullah: "He knew it would be a popular thing to say - the American occupation is one of the most unpopular facts on the Arab streets". But the Saudi official added: "we don't want the Americans just to drop Iraq and leave; we would hold the Americans responsible for the damage if that happens".

The Saudi official said that, for the long term, if Saudi Arabia was going to lead the Arab world and serve as a counterbalance to Iran, the Saudi monarchy cannot be seen as supporting a foreign occupation in Arab land. In fact, King Abdullah had warned American officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's Shi'ites if the US pulled its troops out of Iraq.

Last autumn, as a growing chorus in Washington advocated a draw-down of US troops in Iraq, coupled with a diplomatic outreach to Iran, Saudi Arabia, regarding itself as the leader of the Sunni Arab world, argued strenuously against an American pullout from Iraq, citing fears that Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population would be massacred. But that was a difficult position for Saudi Arabia to support publicly.

Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, was on March 30 quoted as saying: "Everybody assumes that America is a big boy, and big boys have to put up with things". He pointed to the closeness of the relationship between the Bush administration and the Saudi royal family, particularly Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, who is well known in Washington for his access to the White House. The assumption, he said, was that the relationship can withstand a gentle whack or two, adding: "But I think that assumption runs the risk of making things unpleasant".

Bush officials were already angry after Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing agreement between Palestinian President Abbas, whom Washington viewed as a moderate, and Hamas which the US and Israel viewed as a terrorist organisation. Privately, administration officials said the Feb. 8 pact reached in Mecca ruined newly hatched American plans to try to restart peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But no administration official said that publicly because the Saudi path was so central to the American effort in the region. In fact, every time Rice mentioned the Mecca accord, she took pains to say that she "welcomed the king's efforts to end the violence between Palestinians", even as she criticised Hamas for not recognising Israel's right to exist.

Simon Henderson, the director of Gulf and energy policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the very use of the phrase "illegal occupation" legitimised the attacks on US troops in Iraq.

Arab officials said the US had put enormous pressure on the Saudis by calling on them to make a peace overture to Israel, as Rice did on March 27 in Jerusalem. Part of King Abdullah's criticism of the US and Israel in his speech stemmed from anger that Rice could not get more from Israel. Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi Embassy adviser in Washington, was on March 30 quoted as saying: "The Israelis want to win the lottery without paying for a ticket. The lottery is normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, but first they must pay for the ticket by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians".

The Riyadh summit drew a number of world and Muslim leaders, including Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi, Turkish PM Recep Tayip Erdogan, Iranian Foreign Minister Manushehr Mottaki, UN Secretary-General Ban and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

However, when Ban began his address to the summit, Syrian President Assad walked out of the conference hall, followed by Iran's team led by Mottaki. Assad walked out because the UN backed a planned tribunal to try the killers of Hariri, with Syria determined to kill plans for such a court. Mottaki's team walked out because of the UNSC sanctions over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The Riyadh summit was considered to be the largest gathering of its kind in the region. The Saudi delegation included Crown Prince Sultan; Prince Badr, deputy commander of the National Guard; Prince Mit'eb, minister of municipal and rural affairs; Prince Nayef, interior minister; Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh; Foreign Minister Prince Saud; and Prince Muqrin, chief of intelligence.

In his March 28 speech, the Arab League's Moussa said the Arab stance regarding Iraq had not changed since the toppling of Saddam's Sunni/Ba'thist dictatorship. He said the Arab world supported the establishment of a unified Iraqi government that would represent all groups. He said the League was ready to restart the reconciliation meeting for Iraqis, adding that the initiatives to resolve differences in Iraq would require joint efforts from the League, the UN, and the Organisation of Islamic Conference, in addition to Iraq's neighbours.
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Title Annotation:Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, George W. Bush
Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Apr 2, 2007
Previous Article:Riyadh Warns Against US Hitting Iran.
Next Article:Hamas On Israel.

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