Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Saudi king stakes out his position

Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz made remarks in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, published under banner headlines yesterday (Saturday January 27), in which he talked not only about the Shiite question, but also about what he sees as the role of Saudi Arabia in the mideast region, and what he has told Iranian national security chief Ali Larijani about that.

The headlines read: "At a perilous juncture where some are trying to awaken fitna and provoke the region into danger--Custodian of the two holy places to Ahmad al-Jarallah on the attempts at religious evangelization: We know our role as a nation, and the Muslim majority will not be changed in its faith."

The king is echoing expressions of opinion across the region to the effect there is not only new Shiite political influence in Iraq, but that "some" are trying to turn this into region-wide religious influence and conversions as well. He sees himself reasserting his own quasi-religious role to assure people that the Sunni faith is not in danger. Putting the newspaper editor's name in the headline probably indicates what a feather in their cap the paper thinks this exclusive interview is.

Below the headline, there are summaries of six points from the interview:
We take the igniting of Sunni-Shiite strife as a warning, and we will deal with it in a way so as to avoid [having the region] fall into the peril

The message to the majority of Muslims is that it does not appear other sects will be able to penetrate or to take away from it

The situation is not satisfactory, and the ummah should unite and not permit other countries to intervene in its affairs or to traffic in its issues

Those who wanted to put our society into mazes that are not part of the teachings of religion, and who interpret texts outside of their meaning--they have failed

I told Larijani that the Kingdom does not intervene in the affairs of anyone, and it does not support any party that is an enemy of Iran

We do not operate according to the policy of axes, and we advised Iran on how you go about international cooperation, and avoid exposing the Gulf region to dangers
The text of the interview is inside the paper, on page 35, and there two there are point-form summaries at the top, as follows:
Our country has importance in religion and also geographically in the Gulf region, and with respect to its neighbors and international relations, and we bear that importance with complete tranquillity

The massed welcoming of Prince Abdulmajid [back from Europe where he had an operation or something] was by way of reaction to all those who have been talking about the existence of differences in the [ruling Saud] family

We have no foreign borrowings to burden us, but rather some domestic debt, most of which is paid, and what remains is very small

I have not lost hope in a rebirth of the ummah, and in the unity of its decisions; the Palestinian issue should be settled by Arabs and by nobody else

Moderation is of the essence of the [Muslim] call, and by observing that, our society has been able to thwart extremism, and terrorism, and concepts that are excessive, and takfiir [calling others heretics]

Our security people have been able to thwart acts of terrorism before they happen, thanks to the cooperation of the population with the authorities
Taking the most prominent points first, the king is saying:

(1) I am aware of the threat on the religious level. I can assure everyone, first that I am aware of my responsibilities as the top Sunni leader, and secondly I am aware of what is going on and this is not going to have any major effect.

(2) Among the things that Muslim moderation rejects, in addition to terrorism and so on, is the practice of excommunicating or denouncing those of other sects as un-Muslim (takfiir, or "making heretical"). This refers to recent statements by some Saudi religious authorities that did just that, against all Shiites. The king is distancing himself from that.

(2) On the political level, the king says he assured Iran that Saudi Arabia is not in league with the United States or any enemy of Iran in any so-called "axis", and that his "advice" to Larijani had to do with expertise in managing international relations, something he said Saudi has a lot of experience with. The idea of "avoiding peril to the region as a whole" seems to refer to the danger of a military strike from somewhere against Iran, which could then involve the region as a whole.

(3) The king refers to rumors about a split in the ruling family in order to deny them, presumably using the welcome-back gathering as a form of proof that there isn't any real estrangement because everybody was there.

(4) There is the reference to hopes for a rebirth of the ummah and for unity in its decision-making, and a rejection of non-Arab involvement in settling the Palestine question. This is of course bizarre given Saudi support for the US-Israeli policy respecting Hamas and Fatah, but the point is that this no-outside-intervention rhetoric is part of the king's theme.

This set of ideas can be compared with the points mentioned in a recent Al-Quds al-Arabi piece that cited an Arab diplomatic source on signs of a friendly exchange between Prince Bandar and Larijani in the last few days:
The meeting resulted in an implicit agreement about the need to contain the growing sectarian-political tensions in both Iraq and Lebanon. The source said Bandar gave an oral commitment that he would stop the recent fatwas issued by Saudi clerics declaring Shiites heretics, and that he would ease the campaign of attacks against Tehran in the Saudi media, a campaign which climaxed during the recent tour of the region by US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice.

Ali Larijani, who is the top Iranian national security official, denied Iran has any direct influence in either Iraq or Lebanon. And he had given to Saudi king Abdulaziz, just before the recent Rice tour, a message indicating Iran's desire to be cooperaive, but including an implicit warning against [Saudi Arabi] joining in any American diplomatic-military campaign against the Islamic Republic.

The source denied something frequently reported in the media recently, namely that the meeting had resulted in a Saudi-Iranian deal respecting Lebanon. However, he said there was a proposed agreement between the two countries respecting mutual recognition of minimum rights and fears, including Saudi anxiety about what it calls the Iranian nuclear threat, but at the same time recognition of a leading regional role for Tehran, not limited to Iraq and Lebanon, in keeping with its size and influence in the region.
The Al-Quds account of the Bandar-Larijani meeting seems consistent with the the king's points in the Al-Seyassah interview, at least in the these two very general areas: Rejection of the "takfiiri" based attacks on Iran; and offer of a cooperative approach to political issues. It goes without saying that only time will tell what this will mean in practice. The other point is that since this comes at a time of rumors of a split in the ruling family, it is quite possible that the king is aiming to provide assurance to different domestic constituencies at the same time.

A word about the Western coverage of all of this: For the Al-Quds al-Arabi piece, zero. For the king's interview, one AP release, that mentioned only the Shiite issue and left out all the other points.