(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is pushing for Sunni Muslim Middle East countries to set aside differences over political Islam and focus on what it sees as more urgent threats from Iran and Islamic State.
Its new monarch, King Salman, has used summits with leaders of all five Gulf Arab states, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey over the past 10 days to reinforce the need for unity and find a way to workBeing drawn into the Middle East’s sectarian battles, then, carries greater domestic and regional risk for Pakistan than it does for most of the Saudis’ other partners.around disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia's deep-seated mistrust of the Islamist group is unchanged, diplomats say. But King Salman's approach to it is more nuanced than that of his predecessor King Abdullah, who died in January, and may include being more indulgent of allies who allow its members space to operate.
Last year Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, withdrew its ambassador from Qatar over its links to the Brotherhood.
"The Saudis think maybe, if the Sunnis are on good terms, we can confront this. Salman is trying to consolidate the Sunni world and put differences over the Muslim Brotherhood on the back burner," said an Arab diplomat in the Gulf.
Riyadh's bigger concern is Shi'ite Iran. Its fears about the rising influence of its main regional enemy have grown recently as Tehran's Houthi allies seized swathes of Yemen and its commanders have aided Shi'ite militias fighting in Iraq.
Prospects are also growing of a deal between world powers and Iran on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, which might lift pressure on the Islamic republic. Saudi Arabia has watched nervously as its key ally, the United States, has reached out to pursue an agreement with Tehran.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the Saudis on Thursday that he was seeking no "grand bargain" with Iran, but Riyadh's worries over Washington's long-term commitment to the region underpin its desire for more Arab unity.
LURE OF ISLAMIC STATE
The second overarching concern for Riyadh is Islamic State. IS has called on Saudis to stage attacks inside the kingdom and some of its sympathizers assaulted a Shi'ite village in November, killing eight.
Riyadh fears the group's strong media messaging and appeal to strict Muslim ideology could appeal to disaffected young Saudis and challenge the ruling family's own legitimacy, which partly rests on its religious credentials.
But in seeking broader unity across the Arab world on the issue of political Islam, Saudi Arabia must address a deep regional rift. It runs between Sunni states who accept a Muslim Brotherhood presence, such as Qatar and Turkey, and those such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, like Riyadh, describe it as a terrorist organization.
Those differences have come in the way of building a coherent response to regional crises, as attempts to address one problem after another have been diverted into arguments over Islamism.
"Saudi Arabia clearly doesn't want to be open to facing too many battles. IS and Iran are the enemy now, everything else can be put on hold," said a Western diplomat in the Gulf.
Salman's whirlwind of meetings was presented as a chance for the new monarch to discuss events with the region's leaders in greater detail than was possible when they went to Riyadh to pay respects after the death of Abdullah.
But while Salman did not directly push for a new Sunni bloc or lean on states to be more accommodating with those across the Muslim Brotherhood divide, he still opened the possibility of recalibrating relations to allow greater unity.
In his meeting with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for instance, he suggested Riyadh might reinvigorate its relations with other countries, an apparent reference to strengthening ties with Turkey, the Arab diplomat said.
But he also reassured Sisi, a close ally of the late Abdullah, that any attempts to undermine Egypt's security from elsewhere represented a red line for Saudi Arabia, and that any new moves Riyadh made would not be at Cairo's expense.
Nobody expects big changes to Saudi Arabia's position on the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement represents an ideological threat to Riyadh's dynastic system of rule, and its use of oaths of allegiance and secret meetings are anathema to the Saudis.
The Brotherhood was listed by Riyadh as a terrorist organization a year ago, with membership incurring long prison sentences, and both Western and Arab diplomats, and analysts said there was little prospect its status would change.
But Salman is less concerned than was Abdullah about the Brotherhood's role in other parts of the Middle East, such as in Yemen's Islah party or among Syrian rebel groups.
He is also more willing to allow the Brotherhood a role outside politics, for example by not stopping preachers affiliated to the movement from making public speeches on religious or social issues.
One sign of Salman's more pragmatic approach came during a conference in Mecca last week that brought together top Sunni clerics, including the Saudi grand mufti and the head of Egypt's al-Azhar University, to denounce terrorism.
Informed Saudis noted it was hosted by the Muslim World League, a body set up by Riyadh in the 1960s to build an Islamic bloc against radical secular ideologies, and used in the 1980s to bolster Sunnis against revolutionary Iran.
Under Abdullah, it fell out of favor partly because of its historical relationship with the Brotherhood, but Salman now seems prepared to use it again as an instrument to build Sunni solidarity. One of the delegates it invited was a senior member of a Doha-based group with close ties to the Brotherhood.
The change may partly reflect the personality of Salman, who is less uncompromising than was Abdullah, say Gulf insiders, and who is more willing to use any tools at his disposal to counter bigger threats.
All the leaders he met appeared to leave Riyadh confident that their relations with the new king would be strong.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters after his meeting that ties with Saudi Arabia seemed to be improving, Turkey's Hurriyet daily newspaper reported on Wednesday.
"My hopes increased that our bilateral relations will reach a much better place," he was quoted as saying.
But that did not lead him to be conciliatory towards Egypt, where he said political oppression might cause an explosion - exactly the sort of language that upsets Cairo.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Dubai and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing byMark Trevelyan)
AN OPEN LETTER TO KING SALMAN
Abdel Bari Atwan
The new King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz, sent 100 fighter planes to bomb Houthi targets inside Yemen on Wednesday night.
The Saudi action is supported by a coalition of ten other countries including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.
Saudi Arabia is usually slow to act, favouring deliberation and restraint, but when its own interests are so directly threatened it strikes at once.
But the Saudi action is fraught with risks and the results are by no means guaranteed.
The Saudis say they are ready to mobilize an army of 150,000 soldiers, and there can be no doubt that they are militarily superior to the Houthi brigades and have a sophisticated arsenal that includes the latest US-made fighter planes and bombers whereas its opponents have only the most primitive weaponry. Indeed, the Saudis have spent the past three years accumulating planes and tanks from America and Europe at a cost of more than 150 billion dollars – equivalent to Yemen’s budget for the next forty years, or possibly more.
Military superiority is not a guarantee of victory in modern warfare, and air strikes can have limited impact – as we have seen in the airborne attempts to smash the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian regime, supported by a strong, well equipped army, still remains unable to prevail over the opposition, or the Islamic State, and has lost control of many towns and cities.
Yemen is a rugged country – and not only in terms of its landscape. Its people are hot-headed and proud and Sanaa is the only Arab capital that has not been occupied by a foreign power, having faced off the Ottomans, the Portuguese and the British.
The Saudis and Yemenis have been at war before, in 1934 when the Saudi Kingdom was still young. The two Kings were at odds over ownership of Najran, Jizan and Asir on the southern border of Saudi Arabia regional South and North Yemen at the beginning of each of the Saudi state. The Saudis, who had better weapons, seized control of the areas listed above but relinquished Hodeida and the Yemeni coast; they were unable to make an attempt on Sanaa as they intended because their armoured cars and tanks were unable to cross the mountains.
Yemenis are diehard fighters, whether Houthis or their enemies, the Sunni tribes. Saudi Arabia has hastily formed a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Pakistan. The Houthis meanwhile have very dangerous friends themselves, in the regimes of Iran, Iraq, Syria and the BRICS countries.
Inside Yemen, the alliance between the Houthis and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh is highly inflammable. Saleh is Yemen’s longest-ruling leader, he is a shrewd manipulator and still enjoys a lot of support from the Yemeni Army. The Saudi Alliance is backing a weak President lacking experience or charisma – Saleh’s former friend and right hand man, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. There is an undeniable element of Shakesperian revenge in this crisis.
The Saudis say that their air (and probably soon to be ground) intervention is to support the “legitimate” President Hadi but the whole concept of legitimate rule in today’s Middle East has gone haywire. Saudi Arabia has a de facto,unelected system of governance of the type imposed by Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Colonal Muammar Ghadaffi, for example. The electoral process the US insists it favours brought President Morsi to power in Egypt, but the Saudis and the US enthusiastically embraced the military coup which unseated him and ushered in today’s President Sisi, a preferable regional actor.
We do not wish to enter the maze of what constitutes legitimate rule or the volatility of standards in this respect, what interests us is the future of Yemen and, indeed, of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in the aftermath of the current crisis.
We must recognize and understand that Saudi Arabia has not only declared war on the Houthis – it has set up a direct challenge to its regional nemesis, Iran.
The Saudis have been increasingly provoked by America’s rapprochement with Iran over its nuclear aspirations and by the resilience of the Syrian regime which is shored up by Iranian-backed militias, weapons and other forms of support.
Iran is in direct or indirect control of four key Arab States – Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon- as well as part of Palestine (Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Will Saudi Arabia’s bold new step bring it prestige and reduce Iranian influence in the region?
Mr. Aladdin Boroujerdi, head of Iran’s National Security Committee, said that the Saudi strike would ricochet and hit them back because ‘the war is not confined to one place only’. He warned that the sectarian aspect of the crisis would ‘revolutionize’ Shiite minorities in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries.
We must also remember that Nato’s airborne intervention in Libya may have helped topple Gadaffi but resulted in unprecedented chaos: Libya is now in bloody chaos with rival militias fighting for power, two governments, and Islamic extremist groups such as al-Ansar, al-Qaeda and now, the Islamic State (IS), seeking to exploit the security vacuum to seize territory. The same is true in Iraq and Syria – why would Yemen be any exception? IS already has a branch in Yemen which bombed Shia mosques last week killing 147 people.
Last night’s air raids are reminiscent of America’s ‘Desert Storm’, led by General Schwarzkopf against Iraqi after it invaded Kuwait. That ‘Storm’ signalled the beginning of a regional engagement by the US and its allies which has lasted 25 years and which has brought no victory and no resolution but only deepening chaos, insecurity and opportunities for increasingly extremists jihadist entities.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a dangerous adventure, in one of the most volatile environments in an immensely volatile region. It would have been best to leave this particular hornets’ nest undisturbed.
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