Hypocrisy, double standards and a failure to understand the region. These are the charges being levelled at the West, primarily the US, by leaders of 57 Arab and Muslim countries who convened at the weekend in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
How is it, foreign ministers said to me, that the West slams Russia for killing civilians in Ukraine, yet, in their words, it “gives a green light to Israel to do the same in Gaza”?
In the luxurious surroundings of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, amid giant floral bouquets and glittering chandeliers, and a world away from the shattered landscape of Gaza, princes, presidents and prime ministers met for the Joint Arab Islamic Extraordinary Summit.
Blame for the war and the destruction of lives and property was heaped unilaterally on Israel and its supporters. No-one criticised Hamas for its 7 October raid into southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw some 240 taken hostage, triggering the massive military retaliation. Israel, said the secretary general of the Arab League, had committed criminal acts.
“We warn of the disastrous repercussions of the retaliatory aggression by Israel against the Gaza Strip, which amounts to a war crime,” said the final communique. “We warn of the real danger of the expansion of the war as a result of Israel’s refusal to stop its aggression and of the inability of the [UN] Security Council to enforce international law to end this aggression.”
Few people I spoke to at the summit expected Israel to take much notice. Instead, it was clear that this summit and its intended message of unity was aimed at Israel’s biggest backer – the United States. Leaders want the Biden administration and the West in general to exert sufficient pressure on Israel to stop the war altogether.
But what they could not agree on was how to achieve that. The summit pulled together some strange bedfellows – an indication of just how worried the region is at events in Gaza spiralling beyond their control.
Iran – Israel’s main adversary – attended, with President Ebrahim Raisi striding across the carpeted halls in his black, cleric’s robes, flanked by his scowling security men in dark suits and collarless shirts. This in itself was a surprising sight.
Until they patched over their differences in March this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran were arch rivals exchanging venomous mutual accusations. They still have competing agendas, with Iran backing what many call its “proxy militias” – Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudis, together with their conservative Arab allies like Egypt and Jordan, see these movements as dangerous destabilisers.
As he departed Tehran airport for Riyadh, President Raisi said that now was the time for action over Gaza, not words.
But anyone expecting concrete, punitive actions against the US or the UK was left disappointed. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which only recently opened full diplomatic, trade and security ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords, resisted calls to break them off.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was also at the summit. Until very recently he was a pariah in the Arab world for the repressive actions of his regime in Syria’s civil war. He told the summit it would achieve little without concrete measures, but suggestions of an oil embargo or the expulsion of US bases from Arab countries were quietly batted away.
Yet there is no denying that the 7 October Hamas raid and the ensuing war has changed the whole paradigm in the Middle East.
Up until that murderous morning in southern Israel the tectonic plates of regional politics were shifting away from the interests of Iran and its militant allies. Six Arab nations had already established full ties with Israel; Saudi Arabia was well on the way to being next. The Israeli tourism minister visited Riyadh just days before the Hamas raid. Dubai has been luring Israeli tourists in large numbers and there has been a huge Arab appetite for Israel’s expertise in technology, surveillance, bio-tech and other sectors.
With the exception of Qatar, which hosts the exiled political leaders of Hamas, Gulf Arab rulers had grown tired of what they saw as the corruption, inefficiency and infighting of Palestinian leadership. While sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Palestinians, still without a state after 75 years, they largely took the view that Israel was too important a nation to ignore, and that it was time to move on and normalise ties with it. The question of a future Palestinian state, while still featuring in speeches, was getting little practical attention.
Today, those Arab-Israeli ties, while not yet broken, are certainly fraying at the edges.
“We are really worried about the radicalisation of our youth,” one Arab foreign minister told me on background. “They watch what is happening in Gaza on TV and they are increasingly angry.”
Time and again I heard delegates complain that the actions of the Netanyahu government have gone far beyond self-defence and are now dragging the region down a dangerous path. There are concerns that extremist narratives are gaining popularity online.
Arab and Muslim leaders are frustrated that the UN Security Council has failed in their eyes to exercise any restraint on Israel’s military in Gaza. America’s opposition to a ceasefire has deeply embarrassed those countries it calls allies in the region.
Washington’s strategic alliance with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states dates back to 1945 and a wartime meeting on a US warship in the Red Sea between President Roosevelt and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz. Today, the US still provides the bulk of Saudi and Gulf Arab defence and security needs.
But below the surface things are changing. Ever since the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” there has been a fear here in the Gulf that the US is losing interest in the region, that it cannot be relied upon as a loyal partner. At the same time, the influences of Moscow and Beijing are in the ascendant. China recently brokered the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. President Putin has impressed Arab leaders with his unstinting support for Syria’s President Assad. They compare this with how quickly Washington abandoned Egypt’s President Mubarak in 2011 when the crowds came out on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
None of this means the West has lost the friends it had in the Middle East. Those Arab allies are clearly reluctant to go beyond angry words with Washington. But they do want to be heard and for the violence in Gaza to stop now, before events in the region and in their own countries risk deteriorating far beyond their control.
Source : BBC