- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Feeling the pressure mounting from the United Nations on one side and the United States and the European Union — particularly France — on the other, Syrian President Bashar Assad made a dash for Saudi Arabia Sunday, hoping words of wisdom from King Abdullah could help diffuse the rising tension.

Following accusations last week by former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, insinuating Mr. Assad could have been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the U.N. committee investigating Hariri’s murder has asked to interrogate both Mr. Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Shara. Mr. Assad rejected this outright.

Sunday’s surprise visit to meet with King Abdullah came amid efforts to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis spawned by the killing of Hariri last Feb.14, widely believed the work of either Syrian agents or people working on their behalf. Mr. Assad’s visit also followed visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Damascus early Sunday morning.

Assad initially refused the U.N. request, saying neither he nor his foreign minister would comply. But later, diplomats indicated Mr. Shara might be allowed to be questioned.

Mr. Assad sees the Saudi king as his only reliable friend in the Arab world, and one who carries significant political weight.

In recent months — shortly after becoming king — Abdullah has hinted he wanted a greater leadership role in the Middle East, hoping to steer Arabs and Muslims out of troubled waters, away from terrorism and eradicate misconceptions within Islam.

“King Abdullah realizes that at no other time in history has the Islamic world been so leaderless,” Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security adviser told United Press International in Jeddah last November, when the king called for an extraordinary Organization of Islamic Conferences summit. Abdullah recognizes Saudi Arabia’s “great responsibility of moral leadership” in the Arab and Islamic world and hopes to guide that world through the many problems it faces, said Mr. Obaid.

The Saudi king believes “a vast majority of Muslim countries today face political, economic and social underdevelopment that has evolved into a major crisis.” The king is concerned by the “diminishing position of Muslims in the international arena.” He referred to the inability of Arabs and Muslims to prevent the invasion of Iraq or to influence peace afterward.

Clearly, in that state of mind King Abdullah wants to no further crises in the Arab world and has offered his good offices.

As king, Abdullah realizes he has the tools and the power to lead the Arab and Islamic world. Some of these tools are dollars earned from the rising price of oil. As the world’s largest oil-producing nation, the kingdom has no shortage of hard cash to distribute and buy influence and friends, and quite possibly a seat at the head of the table.

At 85, Abdullah certainly has his work cut out for him. He comes, however, with a great advantage over many of his peers. He is reputed to be extremely honest and incorruptible.

A Saudi security source, speaking to UPI on condition his name is not revealed, said King Abdullah told the Syrian president that Saudi Arabia understood he could not be interviewed by the U.N. commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri because he is a head of state. “But at least answer their questions,” the Saudi king reportedly told his Syrian guest. The same source said the king suggested Mr. Assad sends someone in his place who is acceptable to both sides.

“While the king’s position is with the Syrian president, Saudi Arabia’s position is not to meddle into the affairs of a foreign state,” said the Saudi security expert. “President Assad has the king’s support as long as he cooperates with the investigation,” Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi Arabian consultant told UPI.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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