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SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RIYADH MEET
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
March 27, 2007

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News

Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Arab summits have attracted yawns at best or derision at worst. So, why has the summit that opens in Riyadh today regarded by most analysts as worthy of attention?

Cynics might claim that the attention attracted by the summit is akin to the drowning man's attempt at clinging to any flotsam and jetsam in order to save himself. The Middle East remains the most crisis-stricken part of the world with no end in sight for its many problems.

The United States, supposed to be the last remaining superpower, is so involved in its own partisan political civil war that it may soon find itself paralysed when it comes to formulating a credible foreign policy.

The European Union is in no better shape. Its members cannot agree on a constitution for their union, let alone develop a common foreign policy.

With Tony Blair expected to bow out as prime minister next June, Britain is likely to enter a period of political uncertainty lasting until the next general election in three years' time.

France, currently going through a bitterly fought presidential election, would also need some time before it shakes off the legacy of Jacques Chirac and develops a serious foreign policy.

As for Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, dubbed the new "Iron Lady", admits that she spends at least 40 per cent of her energy on maintaining her trouble-ridden coalition together, with another 10 per cent spent on keeping her own double-headed party in line. That leaves little energy to spend on arcane matters such as the Middle East crises.

Russia and China, both potential great powers, lack discernible foreign policies. Often, they are content with saying "no" to the United States or dancing around the issues.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, neither Russia nor China appears to have a clear analysis, let alone concrete policy initiatives.

Inside the region, the Islamic republic in Iran has all but abandoned whatever it had in the way of a foreign policy. Instead, it has opted for populist slogans aimed at pleasing the gallery but unlikely to shape diplomatic strategy.

At the other end of the spectrum, Israel is still trying to come to terms with the shock of abandoning the Sharon.

Shattered

Thus, a huge political vacuum has taken shape in the Middle East. To make matters worse this comes at a time that the status quo shaped in the 1990s has been shattered by the American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq while the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic republic, has re-launched Iran in the role of an anti-status quo power.

Like nature, geopolitics cannot tolerate a vacuum for long. This is why the traditional Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, are trying to fill the gap left by American paralysis, European disabilities, Russian and Chinese uncertainties, Iranian childish games and Israeli confusion.

The Riyadh summit is about placing the bits of a new jigsaw that could, if successfully assembled, might form a new status quo in the region.

The first piece of this new jigsaw is a bloc of eight moderate Arab regimes, that is to say Saudi Arabia and the five smaller Gulf states, plus Jordan and Egypt. The piece in question, known as the 6+2 group, represents about a fifth of the population of the Greater Middle East.

To this could be added another big piece at a later date, consisting of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.

The 6+2 group also aims at a strategic partnership with Pakistan and Turkey, two key non-Arab powers of the region.

Yemen, once it concludes its current war against domestic terrorism, could also be added to the new jigsaw.

The 6+2 bloc also hopes to bring Lebanon onboard.

It is clear that Tehran's take-over bid, placed through Hezbollah and the Maronite General Michel Aoun, has little chance of success. Lebanon, therefore, is likely to return to its natural family of moderate Arab states.

The proposed jigsaw leaves several pieces out.

Two such are Afghanistan and Iraq where the new regimes that have emerged from war and elections may need years before they can develop foreign policies of their own.

In the meantime, the key question will concern the level and length of American commitment to both countries. The new Arab bloc could extend a helping hand. But, without American commitment, it would not be able to transform Afghanistan and Iraq into elements of stability.

Israel and Palestine are also among pieces left out. But the summit will offer ideas on how they could be included. The summit is likely to endorse The peace proposal of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has already received a cautious welcome from Israel and the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government.

The fact that the summit has reached near unanimity in support of the proposals even before opening in Riyadh, is significant. The Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, in 1981 was over after just five hours, as several countries, led by Syria, walked out when the then King Fahd of Saudi Arabia unveiled his plan for peace talks with Israel.

Syria, still hesitating between the Islamic Republic in Iran and the Arab family, appears out of place in the new emerging jigsaw. The question is: can it make the strategic switch without regime change in Damascus?

The biggest piece of the jigsaw whose place remains to be determined is the Islamic republic in Iran. It cannot have a place unless it begins to resemble its neighbours. But this is precisely what Ahmadinejad abhors. His ambition is to make the rest of the region, indeed the whole world, look like the Islamic republic.

The task of the Riyadh summit could be summed up thus: contain Iran, coax Syria, caress Palestine, cool Israel, and commit the US Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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