- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

It may not be a wind of change sweeping the Arab world, but it certainly is “a breath of fresh air,” said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States.

Something very unusual happened in Riyadh at last month’s Arab summit when King Abdullah gathered the Middle East’s presidents, princes, kings and prime ministers to tackle many of the region’s burning issues: the war in Iraq, the situation in the Palestinian territories, the tension in Lebanon and the ethnic conflicts in Darfur and Somalia.

The uncommon occurrence was Abdullah’s harsh criticism of his fellow Arab leaders, saying the blame for much of the Middle East’s woes lies with them. Abdullah blamed Arab leaders for divisions, infighting, bloodshed and the havoc plaguing the Middle East. In the past, Arab leaders tended to place all blame for their ills on the United States and the CIA, which was believed to be infallible and responsible for everything that went wrong in the Arab world.

Addressing the delegates, Abdullah said Arab nations were “further from unity than they were at the time of the founding of the Arab League.” “The real blame should be directed at us, the leaders of the Arab nation,” said the Saudi monarch. “Our constant disagreements and rejection of unity have made the Arab nation lose confidence in our sincerity and lose hope.”

Abdullah’s criticism of Arab leaders, said Mr. Fahmy, “was taken by the Arabs as a breath of fresh air of self-criticism.” This slow-coming change is propelled mostly by two things: a young population — 56 percent are 25 or younger — and growing media openness. “Our media is more much more open than it ever was in years past,” said Mr. Fahmy. “So you can’t hide the issues. The issues are out there.

“There is change in the Arab world. Serious change,” said the diplomat from Cairo. “Is it late? Yes. Is it slow? Yes. But there is change. We need to nurture it more. We need to be wiser.” The high point of the summit was the much expected peace deal, known as the Saudi Peace Initiative, expected to offer Israel full recognition by all 22 Arab League member states. In exchange, Israel would withdraw to the June 5, 1967, frontier and recognize a Palestinian state behind secure borders.

The initiative was first introduced at the Beirut Arab summit in 2002. The peace plan also calls for setting up a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and probably the most difficult part finding a “just solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Fearing a demographic tsunami if several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees were to begin pouring back into Israel proper, Israel rejected a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and vehemently opposes the potential influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees populating the Jewish state. Within a short while they feel Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.

Although Israel rejected the 2002 Arab initiative, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was willing to accept it — with some changes, especially if the “rights of return” of Palestinian refugees were “watered down.” Abdullah also pointed to the bloodshed in Iraq, where he called the U.S. military presence “an illegitimate foreign occupation” and warned that “abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war.”

Unfortunately, in the West, particularly in the United States, most of the king’s speech went unnoticed, with the mainstream media preferring instead to focus on the phrase “illegitimate foreign occupation.” Abdullah used the phrase for two reasons: primarily to play to his audience, most of them highly unsympathetic to the invasion of an Arab country by a Western power; and secondly, says a Saudi official with close ties to the palace, he likes to take his place at the head of the Arab plan. “He sees himself as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, without the socialist aspect,” he said.

Egypt, from where Nasser hailed, is willing to accept and support Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Middle East. Abdullah, according to a Saudi security expert with close ties to the king, said that since Nasser’s death in August 1970, the Arab world had largely been without a strong leader able to unite the Arabs. Abdullah, according to this Saudi analyst who asked that his name be withheld, sees a role for himself as a potential replacement for Nasser.

“I don’t know that he does [see himself as a Nasser], but frankly if he does, that’s fine with us,” Mr. Fahmy said at a recent lunch party. “The Middle East has a lot of problems. Frankly, if we can get a number of strong, progressive leaders to engage on the issues, all the better,” said the ambassador.

Mr. Fahmy said he follows often, “not only in your press, but also in our press, this nonsense about the competition.”

The Egyptian diplomat admitted there “are more problems than we can solve ourselves; the more of us that are engaged the better. I completely support what the king has been doing, and hopefully he will do more. He’s very straightforward.” Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, may accept Abdullah’s mentorship, but how other countries such as Syria react remains to be seen.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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