Image: Saudi Prince Abdullah
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, center, is flanked by unidentified members of his delegation at the opening of the Arab summit in Beirut.
By MSNBC

He's a man with a plan. He’s got a counterfeit peace offer in his hand. And Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's sudden appearance at the center of the tattered Middle East peace process may have far more to do with rehabilitating his kingdom’s battered image in America than ending the Arab blood feud with Israel.

The fact that Yasser Arafat will not be in Beirut to discuss the “Saudi peace plan” is likely to have very little effect on the plan’s ultimate fate. The plan, which Prince Abdullah cleverly handed to The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman three weeks ago, never had much hope of developing beyond the 800 words of Friedman’s foreign affairs column. Its basic barter proposition, pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from the lands Israel conquered by force of arms, is not new. In fact, it is exactly what Arab League summits have been offering for years, and it conforms to the time-worn U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 (passed in 1967 and 1973 respectively) that demand Israel vacate all lands occupied during the 1967 war.

These two resolutions form the foundation of the Arab world’s position on the conflict and have for years. True, the prospect of Arab states recognizing Israel within those smaller borders was never spelled out so directly before, but in practice this has always been the unspoken understanding. Make peace with the Palestinians, cut a deal on Jerusalem, and most of the Arab world - prodded or bribed by the United States and Europe - will go along for the ride.

TALK IS CHEAP

There are a host of reasons this plan never stood a chance, most of them having to do with the convictions of the current Israeli government. The Saudis knew this, and in a calculated gamble, they gleefully presented this plan to Friedman, the English-speaking world’s premier foreign affairs columnist, knowing that it might cause the Sharon government some momentary discomfort before it was rejected. Sharon has let the offer die of neglect, in effect, and by moving to deny Arafat access to the Arab League summit in Beirut, sent a message to the United States, too, that he could not be bullied into moderation.

So, a big failure for the Saudis and a rebuke to Washington, right?

Wrong. In fact, far from expecting to solve the Middle East conflict, the “Saudi peace plan’s” real purpose was to make Saudi Arabia respectable again - or at least tolerable - in the eyes of the American public.

It may be worth reminding Americans at this point what its foreign policy in the Middle East has been about for, say, the last 50 years. Many might say it was about bringing about a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would be understandable, considering all the ink and hot air the media has expended on that topic. But America’s main interest in the Middle East, bar none, is in oil.

And new world order notwithstanding, most of that oil is controlled by Saudi Arabia today just as surely as it was in 1973.

Without Saudi Arabia’s oil and its control of oil prices, for instance, a war against Iraq causes a global recession. Without Saudi Arabia’s airbases and the American command facilities now based there, a war against Saddam Hussein is nearly impossible. Without Saudi Arabia’s cooperation, the war against terrorism, the efforts to sever al-Qaida’s financial lifeline and, more importantly, the long-term goal of preventing radical Islam from poisoning another generation of Muslims, all are a waste of time. The survival of a friendly regime sitting atop this sea of oil has been judged by every U.S. administration since 1945 as a vital American interest.

WHAT A MAKEOVER

Until three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia had fallen dangerously afoul of the American people. Arguably, this nasty theocracy had as much right to be on any list of potential American targets of the war on terrorism as any state on earth.

At least 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, not to mention Osama bin Laden himself, were born in the kingdom.

The bulk of the financial support that flowed to al-Qaida secretly and to the Taliban not-so-secretly came from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi money underwrites the madrassas that are scattered all over the Islamic corners of this planet, schools bent on twisting young minds into the cult of martyrdom.

And, at the risk of sounding faint hearted, here’s a small snippet from this year’s State Department Human Rights report on our friendly kingdom:

Citizens have neither the right nor the legal means to change their government. Security forces continued to abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold them in incommunicado detention. In addition there were allegations that security forces committed torture. .. The Mutawwa’in [religious police] continued to intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens and foreigners. Most trials are closed, and defendants usually appear before judges without legal counsel. The Government infringes on citizens’ privacy rights. The Government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. ... Other continuing problems included discrimination and violence against women, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights. The Government views its interpretation of Islamic law as its sole source of guidance on human rights and disagrees with internationally accepted definitions of human rights.

It was for this nation - or, let’s be honest - for this nation’s oil, that 320 Americans died in the 1990-91 Gulf War. Is there really any need, given the State Department’s rather candid report, to wonder “why they hate us?” Without us, the Saudi monarchy ceases to exist.

And yet, even after Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia refused to let American aircraft take off from the bases established to defend it from Iraq; it refused to move quickly against “charities” shown to have al-Qaida links and continues to obstruct FBI and CIA investigations.

SPINNING DESPOTISM

All of this put the Bush administration in an awful place. Long before this Bush or his father ever entered the White House, American policy in the Middle East had revolved around the brutal desert monarchy. Yet this lynchpin of American policy also appeared to be the bottle from which the djin bin Laden emerged. Something clearly had to give.

Image: 020326_pak_saud_mosque_bcol
Pakistani school children walking beside the Shah Faisal Mosque, said to be Asia's biggest and built with a $50 million donation from Saudi Arabia's King Faisal.
And something did. The administration denies that there has been any effort to help rehabilitate Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the American public. State Department officials insisted in late February that they were as surprised as anyone about the “Saudi peace plan.” Yet, from the beginning, the hype that surrounded the Saudi peace plan reeked of a coordinated and well-executed public relations effort.

The Friedman column, which was based on a rare interview granted by the Crown Prince, touched off a spate of news stories after it appeared in The New York Times. Few of the first wave of these stories noted that the plan wasn’t all that new.

But the Saudis chose their venue well. For good reason, Friedman’s word is read above all others on this subject, and what newspaper’s management can resist following up on a plan for Middle East peace that appeared to grow directly out of its own pages? Before long, America’s TV networks and cable news stations and (yes) Internet news sites were treating the warmed-over Saudi plan as if it was the second coming of Anwar Sadat.

Interestingly, on Feb. 17, the very day the Friedman piece appeared, the Crown Prince held talks with CIA Director George Tenet in Saudi Arabia - an unprecedented visit for an American intelligence chief. The visit was an effort to shake loose more cooperation from Saudi law enforcement agencies. But was there more to it?

Certainly, the idea of a public relations offensive was in the air. As far back as last December, influential voices on Arab affairs had been pressing the administration to move quickly to staunch the flow of negative stories about the Saudis.

In a December piece for “American Diplomacy,” the in-house journal of the U.S. Foreign Service, Herman F. Eilts, a two-time American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, counseled that: “Mending the frayed bilateral relationship will depend in large part on what Washington does after victory. Inevitably, the greater the “collateral damage” our bombings inflict on Afghan civilians, the greater will be Saudi criticism. A more effective U.S. public relations effort is clearly needed.”

It would be hard to imagine a more effective effort than that which began with Friedman’s column. It may be overly cynical to think that the Saudis are completely disingenuous about the idea that Israel may someday return to its pre-1967 borders. It may even happen someday.

Yet could anyone really have believed that Sharon, who only a few years ago was still asserting that Israel had a biblical right to “Judea and Samaria,” was going to trade the occupied territories and a slice of Jerusalem for peace? For that matter, does anyone think that the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria or Iran would be willing to give up “the struggle with the Zionist entity,” which has been a convenient excuse for their own incompetence and ruthlessness? The conflict can only end when peace serves the interests of the main actors. So far, in their actions if not their words, both sides have shown that simply isn’t true.

 

Copyright MSNBC 2003

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