Who Leads the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah often has the weary air of a simple man who's lived long enough to see it all, and in many ways he has. He was born more than 80 years ago, into a world of desert warriors where his father had yet to conquer the holy cities of Mecca and Medina or found the nation that Abdullah rules today. No oil flowed from beneath the sands. No Israel existed. The whole of the modern Middle East, for better or worse, has been created in his lifetime.

Yet now, say senior Saudi princes and members of the government, Abdullah has grown so angry and "emotional" about the disasters confronting the region that he's decided to take on a new role. No longer will Saudi Arabia play backup while its ally the United States fronts the band. Abdullah has grown frustrated, almost bitter, with the fecklessness of a divided Arab world. As if taking a line from Plato's Republic—"He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one worse than himself"—the old king is now trying to lead on virtually every sensitive issue in the Middle East, from an Arab-Israeli peace to Darfur.

This surge of diplomatic initiative has baffled Washington. Bush officials worry whether Abdullah's new activism will ultimately support U.S. policy or undermine it. The Saudi monarch minced few words last week in his address to the summit of Arab kings, princes, prime ministers and presidents in Riyadh. Without diplomatic nicety, he condemned the "illegitimate foreign occupation" of Iraq. "Blood flows between brothers ... threatening a civil war," he harshly declared. American officials quickly noted that U.S. forces operate under a United Nations mandate, renewed every year. But there was no mistaking Abdullah's angry frustration with both the Americans' failure to bring order, after launching an ill-conceived invasion, and the Iraqis' own penchant for violence.

The threat of civil wars among the Lebanese and Palestinians has also aroused his passion—as have Tehran's efforts to exploit the unrest to spread its Islamic revolution. The Saudis see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary rhetoric against Israel as a crass bid for support among embittered Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite. And they consider Iran's race to become a nuclear power a direct threat to Saudi Arabia's own influence, if not its survival, as well as a provocation to the United States that will bring more war to the region. "Do you think those U.S. warships are out there on vacation?" Abdullah warned Ahmadinejad when they met a few weeks ago in Riyadh, according to sources close to the royal family.

Abdullah's fears about Iran's hegemonic ambitions date at least to September 2005. "It seemed at the time as if Iraq were being presented to the Iranians on a silver platter," says Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief who was then ambassador to Washington. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, the ambassador's brother and, like him, the son of a former king, met with George W. Bush last May to press Saudi concerns. "We have two nightmares about our relationship with Iran," he told the president, according to Turki. "One is that Iran will develop a nuclear bomb, and the other is that America will take military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb."

Over the summer, however, U.S. officials started getting what seemed to be very different signals from other Saudi officials. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a close friend of the Bush family and for years a charismatic figure on the Washington scene, had been appointed as Abdullah's national-security adviser. As Bandar made frequent trips to visit members of the Bush administration, word spread in Washington that he was advocating a blatantly aggressive line against Tehran and its clients in the region, possibly including efforts to undermine Hamas in the Palestinian territories, support for Israel's efforts to take out Hizbullah in Lebanon and even military action against Iran's nuclear installations. (At the height of Bandar's back-channel activity, Ambassador Turki Al-Faisal suddenly resigned for what he said were personal reasons.) The Israeli press reported without official confirmation that Bandar had also met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a third country. Bandar was unavailable for comment, and U.S. officials declined to discuss their conversations with him. Other Saudi officials flatly denied that Bandar had met with any member of the Israeli government.

Amid all this noise, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia to spend several hours with King Abdullah over Thanksgiving weekend. No official word about that meeting has been forthcoming, but according to usually well informed Saudi sources, if Cheney thought the king would endorse military action against Iran, he was mistaken. Since then, Abdullah's policy has been quite clearly to talk to Iran and its clients—whether Washington wants him to or not.

But he's also been talking tough. In Lebanon, the Saudis have reached out not only to their longtime allies but to Hizbullah as well, seeking to restore the unity of a government bitterly divided between anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian factions. Even more ambitiously, Abdullah has tried to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process. If his emotions were running high before, he must have been beside himself over the increasingly violent clashes between Hamas, which gets Iranian support, and the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas, pushing the Palestinians toward civil war. "He just couldn't take that," says Foreign Minister Al-Faisal.

Summoning the leaders of Fatah and Hamas to Mecca, Abdullah successfully pressured them to stop the fighting and form a unity government. When he then faced criticism from the Bush administration and Israel for undermining efforts to isolate Hamas, he was, according to one source close to the royal family, "furious."

By now, Abdullah is on a roll. He used last week's Arab summit to relaunch a peace initiative he had first proposed five years ago. It promises full recognition and peace for Israel with all Arab countries if and when it withdraws to its 1967 borders and an equitable solution is found for the future of Palestinian refugees. Far from dismissing the plan, as in the past, Olmert left the door open to further talks. "Saudi Arabia is the country that in the end will determine the ability of the Arabs to reach a compromise with Israel," he said.

At a time when the future of so much of the Middle East is so bleak, the old scion of desert warriors may yet find new paths toward peace. At least, he's out there looking, and leading.