Abdullah: The Relentless King
For decades, fearing the undesirable reaction of their people, Arab heads of states have either failed to express succinctly their political message or merely heeded the popular sentiments of the Arab street. Their stance on the Middle East and world affairs, therefore, has been ambivalent and at best has resembled the Orwellian "doublethink:" one declared message is tailored for the satisfaction of the public and one is communicated through private or diplomatic channels to Western leaders. The outcome has been a paralyzed political process and a perpetuation of a vicious cycle of violence.
During the Israeli-Lebanon crisis in 2006, a dramatic change took place from which there emerged a cohesive and articulated message which was pivotal in inducing some Arab heads of states to take a stance, irrespective of the popular sentiment in their countries. Within a few days, the message became instrumental in turning around a large segment of the Arab street, which ultimately distanced themselves from Hezbollah and its powerful nationalistic message. Israel, for the first time since its inception, has garnered sympathy from some quarters in the Arab world in its fight against Hezbollah.
This event was a milestone development in the march for accepting Israel and was the result of a concentrated and probably the most tangible strategic changes that have ever taken place in the region. A few decades ago, the prospect of such a dramatic change could only be relegated to the ranks of fiction. The architect of this new strategy is no other than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
In order to discredit Hezbollah and its patrons, Syria and Iran, the king employed his personal influence among the Arab heads of states and effectively utilized the kingdom's powerful media networks. Most importantly, influential members of the Wahhabi religious authority issued a fatwa prohibiting any help to Hezbollah. Within a few days, the official sentiments and the message in most media outlets in the region were profoundly changed. Hezbollah was depicted in a persistent, disciplined, and clearly articulated message across the Arab and the Muslim Worlds as a sectarian organization interested in its own glory and the weakening of Arab countries.
The recent events in Gaza were a critical test of whether or not the changes in the Arab political landscape which took place in 2006 had established roots. Given the fact that Hamas is not Hezbollah and has massive and powerful support among followers and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious and political organizations across the Muslim and Arab world, the expectation was that King Abdullah would face an unwinnable challenge. But the king was not about to squander his political capital; nor was he willing to let events be dictated, by what he perceived were radical groups like Hamas, dwarf his achievements and stature in the Middle East politics.
As the pressure in the Arab Street mounted, and Qatar and other Arab governments called for an emergency meeting for the heads of the Arab states, the monarch was unshakable and asserted that any meeting, during this time, would enlarge the division among Arabs, lead to polarization of the Arab camp, and that the appropriate step to be taken was for Palestinians to unite first behind Mahmoud Abbas' authority. Egypt and Jordan reacted favorably and some other Arab states, propagated the same message that the Palestinian house must be rearranged before a meaningful solution to the crisis could be reached. This gave Israel needed time to maneuver and advance its "Cast Lead" military operation.
King Abdullah's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, announced on Jan. 1, that only if the U.N. Security Council "fail[s] to bring about a cessation of hostilities, [will] an Arab summit will be convened in the Qatar capital, Doha."
At the same time, the king persuaded the religious authority to issue a fatwa. The fatwa called for Palestinians "to be conscious of God and to depend on Him, and to avoid division ... and to consult those who have knowledge, reason, and wisdom in all of their affairs" before they undertook any action.
The fatwa, while calling on Muslims to offer moral support along with medicine and money to Gazans, squarely placed the blame on what was happening in Gaza on the division among Palestinians; implicitly blamed Hamas.
Abdullah reiterated his call on Jan. 4 for the Palestinians to be united, stating, "I support every effort that is aimed at strengthening ... the unity of Palestinians and their leadership." And as Qatar and its supporters continued their call for an Arab summit in Doha, he invited the foreign ministers of the Arab Gulf States to convene in Saud Arabia. Again, the king vehemently rejected the call for an Arab summit in Qatar and instead recommended that the Arab heads of states consult on Gaza issues as a sideline of the already scheduled Arab Economic, Development and Social summit which was to take place in Kuwait. This diplomatic initiative was instrumental in the failure of the Doha summit and the weakening of Hamas supporters.
As Israel announced a ceasefire and started to withdraw its military from Gaza, Abdullah shifted his message during the Arab economic summit in Kuwait, by placing a priority on building Gaza and offering financial support. He presented the image of a leader who is above division, warned Israel of its wrongdoing, and underscored the wisdom of those who supported his views, stating: "We value all those who strove to put an end to the bleeding, especially our brothers in Egypt under the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak." In particular, he reminded Palestinians that their discord rather than Israel is their enemy.
While serving as crown prince and regent to his ailing brother, King Fahd in 1990s, Abdullah had reached two conclusions. First, Saudi Arabia's national interests coincide with those of the United States'. Second, Israel is no longer a threat to the status quo in the region. Rather, it is a strategic force for maintaining stability and deterring outside threats, especially from Iran.
The Barack Obama administration presents a fresh challenge to King Abdullah, who might find his freedom in dealing with the new White House severely limited and his familiar approaches unworkable. Successive Republican and Democrat administrations have treated the kingdom and its monarch with special care and made sure that their interests were protected. More importantly, Abdullah has had a close personal friendship with George W. Bush and his father. Both presidents looked on Abdullah as a friend and an indispensable ally.
It remains to be seen how President Obama, the idealist liberal, views King Abdullah, the traditional monarch. The king has not left events to chance. Since the Gaza crisis, he has intensified his efforts to situate himself as the ultimate problem solver in the Middle East and the faithful defender of U.S. interests in the region. He and his government have consistently sent messages concerning peace with Israel, isolating Iran, and weakening Iran's supporters in the Arab world, i.e. Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other nationalistic organizations. On Feb. 3, Abdullah's government issued an implicit call for Arabs to be aware of Iran's policies disguised as defending Arab and Muslim interests. The government, too, in cooperation with Egypt, organized a conference on Feb. 3 for foreign ministers of U.S.-allied states to back the peace initiative with Israel.
Motivated by ensuring the survival of and maintaining security in the kingdom, Abdullah is counting on Washington's traditional support. This may explain why he appears to be in a race with time to demonstrate to President Obama that his kingdom is a trusted ally which is willing to utilize its unlimited wealth and resources to steer events in the region into a direction that serves Israel's concerns for security, while optimizing what he perceives as American interests in the region.
Abdullah understands that Obama seeks to differentiate his administration's foreign policy from that of his predecessor, and that Obama might not agree or see eye to eye with him. Nevertheless, Abdullah knows that, at this moment, he holds the key to two important factors: the free flow of oil and peace with Israel. He is betting that Obama ultimately reciprocates his friendly gestures.
Abbas J. Ali is the author of "Business and Management in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and opportunities for Multinational Corporations," which was published by Routldge, December 2008. He is a professor and director, school of International Management Indiana.