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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 11:45 GMT
Shy kingdom takes centre stage
Crown Prince Abdullah (right) and US Vice President Dick Cheyney
Prince Abdullah (right) is increasing his diplomatic role
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By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

These are unusual days indeed for Saudi Arabia.

The world's oil giant - traditionally shy and retiring when it comes to taking the initiative on the Arab-Israeli crisis - finds itself centre stage.

The Saudi peace initiative, envisaging the Arab world making peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied land, is the dominant topic in the region's media, reflecting the huge attention it is attracting worldwide.

By putting the Middle East peace initiative on the table, the kingdom has sought to show Washington and American public opinion that it is a responsible and peace-loving nation

While Saudi Arabia in the past has rarely played a prominent role in moves to tackle the Arab-Israeli issue, its view on the dispute has never been in doubt.

The kingdom has not only been a financial supporter of the Palestinians, but it has also been unequivocal in backing their demands for statehood.

Palestinian state

In particular, Saudi Arabia is insistent that the eastern part of Jerusalem, where Islamic sacred shrines are located, should be part of a future Palestinian state.

Over recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah has on several occasions expressed his anger not only at Israeli military action against the Palestinians, but also the support that the Jewish state enjoys from the United States.

The initiative will be scrutinised at the Beirut summit
It was out of this anger and frustration that his peace initiative emerged.

Saudi anger at the United States was also fuelled by sharp criticism of the kingdom in the American press in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, leaving relations between the two allies strained.

By putting the Middle East peace initiative on the table, the kingdom has sought to show Washington and American public opinion that it is a responsible and peace-loving nation.

More importantly, it has called the bluff of Israel and the United States.

Verbal backing

Having won the verbal backing of all the key Arab states for its initiative, Saudi Arabia now needs to secure their formal approval of it at the Beirut summit.

Assuming all goes well, then the ball will be firmly in the Israeli-American court.

The United States could find itself in an awkward position.

Having applauded the Saudi initiative, it would have to help to see it implemented.
US President George W Bush
The peace plan could cause headaches for President Bush
For this to happen, Israel would be required, among other things, to withdraw from all occupied land, including east Jerusalem.

Only a blind optimist could envisage the current hardline Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, freely agreeing to that condition.

So at very best, one would see the start of difficult negotiations that would only succeed if the United States broke with tradition and put pressure on Israel to withdraw from all occupied land.

Political adroitness

Whatever the outcome of the initiative, its style and timing reflect political adroitness that few believed the kingdom, in many respects closed to the outside world, possessed.

Over recent months, under the guidance of Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to the international media and shown that it wants to be more active in international affairs.

So while the current peace initiative may be the kingdom's first, it seems unlikely to be its last.

See also:

27 Feb 02 | Media reports
Saudi move stirs regional hopes
26 Mar 02 | Media reports
Great expectations from Beirut summit
27 Feb 02 | Middle East
What is in the Saudi peace initiative?
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