When Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah opened the Arab Summit in Riyadh this week, speaking about Iraq as a land where "blood flows between brothers in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism," he offended many policymakers in Washington. But the statement was only one signal among many that, in the face of explosive conflicts that the Bush administration has caused or failed to contain, the king is out to assert Saudi Arabia's role as an independent leader in the region. The goals—to stabilize Iraq, build an Arab-Israeli peace and contain the growing influence of Iran—are the same as Washington's. But the means to those ends are very different. In an exclusive interview, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal sat down with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey to trace the dramatic changes in his country's policy over the last year. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why has Saudi Arabia suddenly moved to the forefront of diplomatic action in the region? Because of Iraq? The Palestinian issue? Lebanon? Iran?
Saud al-Faisal: It's all of these things together—the feeling that in the Arab world things are happening as if there are no people in the region who have their own separate will, that there are no people in the region who can protect their own interests, or even their own territory. And added to this, there was this internecine fighting between the Palestinians themselves [earlier this year], which really, I think, created in the king a feeling that disaster was going to happen in the Arab world; that unless we grasp our fate in our hands and move forward to resolve our own problems, we're going to be just a people that once were there—and are no longer there.
We have seen a loss of identity in the Arab world, a loss of community, which was not being replaced by anything else. This [summit] is an effort to make Arab decisions that are worked out—not just to meet and take decisions and go out and forget about them—to show that when we promise to do something in the Arab world, we do it.
So, King Abdullah was spurred to action when fighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah forces in the Palestinian territories.
That is what motivated him to move very quickly and, in a very emotional state, to get the Palestinians to Mecca. I think he showed in Mecca he was an irresistible force. And the Palestinians, I think, more than anything else, were shamed into coming to an agreement, and the agreement is a good one.
He just couldn't believe that Palestinian guns are turned against Palestinian people and blood is shed and people are killed and children are orphaned by them fighting against each other while they're facing such horrendous treatment from the Israelis. He just couldn't take that. And the statement that he made I think reflects this emotion.
Many in Washington and Israel hoped Saudi Arabia could deliver more than it did at Mecca. A national unity government was formed. But some critics suggest that by embracing Hamas instead of isolating it, the agreement might even have hurt the peace process.
I think on the contrary it helped it, because it moved the Palestinians toward thinking of themselves as a nation and not as movements vying for influence. They think now of themselves as a government, and they have a direction, and any time that happens, that is better for peace. In the past, people were trying to maneuver, to trick people into coming to peace. You can't do that. You can't trick somebody to sign [an agreement]. Even if he signs a piece of paper saying that he will do this and that, nobody's going to follow him. It was tried with Yasser Arafat. They got many agreements from him, huge agreements. "Yes, yes, I'll do this," he said, and he couldn't make it work because nobody else was supporting it.
The Arab Peace Initiative first adopted in 2002 and reiterated here in Riyadh promises full peace and recognition for Israel from all Arab countries if Israel returns to its 1967 borders and an equitable solution for Palestinian refugees can be found. Is this a take-it-or-leave-it proposition or a final goal? And if so, how do you get from here to there?
The people who have to help in getting us from here to there are the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Syrians, and the Israelis and the Lebanese. Once they solve their problems, then you can have peace between all the Arab countries and Israel. And this is what seems to escape everybody's attention in talking about the proposal. The proposal is not about recognition. It's about solving problems. And once you solve problems then you come to the issue of recognition and then you make peace and open borders and things of that sort.
So it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But doesn't that leave us essentially waiting on the same negotiations as before?
But that's just the point. I mean, you cannot escape the reality that Israel is occupying Syrian territory, is occupying Lebanese territory, is occupying Palestinian territory. How can you escape the fact that you must solve these in order to make peace? I mean, we never said that the peace proposal is a magic thing, coming out of a lantern that will suddenly make peace on its own. Peace is the hardest thing to work for, and unless you work hard for peace you will not be able to achieve it. It requires difficult decisions, sure, but when was peace ever easy to attain when there was conflict?
Israelis expressed disappointment about other aspects of the Mecca agreement. There was hope, for instance, that Saudi Arabia would use its leverage to win the freedom of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza since last summer.
We didn't talk about that.
You didn't talk about that at all?
At all. It is not our concern. It was something that the Egyptians were talking to [the Palestinians] about and we didn't want to trip over each others' feet talking about the same thing. That was something that was never part of the negotiations.
More central to the peace process, what about getting Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist? Or, at a minimum, to honor previous agreements made by the Palestinian Authority?
The [Riyadh summit] recognizes the decision of the national government of the Palestinians to commit themselves to the Arab strategy toward peace and the Arab peace plan … This was the commitment that now the Palestinian government is like any other Arab government, committed to [looking] for peace as the only alternative.
In Lebanon several weeks ago it looked as if a new civil war might erupt between Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran and allied to Syria, and the dominant factions in the Lebanese government who are opposed to Syria.
We talked to them sensibly, I think, and they listened. I think Hizbullah in particular. We told them, "You are going to lose all your popularity if you are the cause of a new civil war in Lebanon." I think in the final analysis they listened to reason, that is the only way that I can explain it. They saw the precipice, and I think they all got scared and moved back. Remember, they all remember the civil war [from 1975 to 1990]. Still.
Saudi Arabia's increasing activism in the region appears to be largely an effort to counterbalance or contain Iran.
Certainly what Iran is doing is interfering in Iraq. We told them this will not benefit them but will do more damage to them than [good]. But we have never put ourselves in a position of conflict with Iran.
We told [the Iranians] that their interference in Arab affairs is creating a backlash in the Arab world and in the Muslim world. Other Muslim countries are complaining of [Iranian] interference in internal affairs. And we talked to them frankly and honestly on this issue and they see the danger that what is happening is going to lead to strife between Shiites and Sunnis.
We told them, "You may think that Shiites are a majority in Iraq but they are a minority everywhere else. And they are a minority that is achieving equality now in the Sunni countries. In countries like Saudi Arabia now, Shiites are working in every part of the government and the military and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—in all the security areas. They [have] the same rights and obligations as any other citizen. Hopefully we have a melting pot here. But undoubtedly, if this sectarianism in Iraq evolves and continues, it will threaten the Shiite communities in the whole world." And this the Iranians worry about.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently visited King Abdullah. What was the tone of their meeting?
King Abdullah speaks to everybody frankly. And that is one of the most endearing and effective elements in his nature, I think. That makes even somebody whom he talks to in a very clear manner accept it.
So, what did the king tell Ahmadinejad?
"You're interfering in Arab affairs." He said that to him.
Bluntly. He listened and he said, "We don't interfere." But we said, "Whether you deny it or not, this is creating bad feelings for Iran and we think you should stop."
And on the question of Iran's nuclear program?
On the nuclear issue, we warned him: "Don't play with fire. Don't think the threat [of an American attack on Iran] is a nonexistent threat; think that it's a real threat, maybe even a palpable threat. Why do you want to take a chance on that and harm your country? What is the rush? Why do you have to do it [enrich uranium] this year and not next year or the year after? Or five years from now? What is the real rush in it?"
It's been said that Saudi Arabia may force oil prices down to punish Iran.
They're not going to be brought down.
No. People need oil.
What can Saudi Arabia do, if anything, to help free the British naval personnel being held by Iran?
That is, I think, first of all, a catastrophe for Iran. This is just not the time for them to have a problem like that looming. We tell them that.