Reported Egyptian-Saudi-Syrian summit makes regional tension eyed

08:31, April 23, 2010      

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The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria were reportedly expected to meet on Thursday in the Sinai resort town Sharm el-Sheikh. The rare summit, according to the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, was to focus on major regional and international issues.

However, the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar reported on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be attending.

Instead, the meeting would merely be a courtesy call by Saudi monarch King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, inquiring after the health of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak following the recent removal of his inflamed gallbladder.

For Middle East experts, the no show is yet another sign of the strained relationship between Damascus on the one hand and Cairo and Riyadh on the other.


Syria simply sees the world in a very different way from the other two nations, explained Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Syria's approach to regional issues is largely based on broad philosophical or ideological concepts, he said on Thursday.

"They see themselves as standing up for the rights of Arabs, and Damascus is prepared to clash with the U.S.," said Lowe.

The Saudi and Egyptian approaches to international diplomacy are more pragmatic, which have no interest in upsetting the United States, said Lowe.

The differences between Syria and the other two Arab states have been more noticeable over the last couple of years, according to Dr. Yoram Meital, who heads the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel.

He said this has been evidenced in particular during meetings of the Arab League, with boycotts being the order of the day.

The divisions revolve around most areas of diplomacy, including three key issues: relations with Israel, the U.S. and Iran.

While the Saudis and Egyptians have been working behind the scenes to help advance the Palestinian-Israeli process, the Syrians have been pouring cold water on those efforts. When a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers a couple of months ago gave the green light to the Palestinians to enter indirect talks with Israel, it was the Syrians who said the umbrella body of the Arab world should not be making decisions on behalf of the Palestinians.

On the Iranian front, in views of analysts, the Syrians are toeing the same line as Tehran. This week, the Syrian government was also forced to deny reports that it had passed Scud missiles on to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant organization in Lebanon.

At the same time both Egypt and Saudi Arabia spoke publicly about their fears of Iran with nuclear weapons. Both believe, as analysts suggest they would likely be in Teheran's crosshairs should Iran be attacked by the U.S. or Israel.


The differences are arguably best seen in the context of the countries' relationships with Washington.

After five years without an ambassador in Damascus, the Obama administration recently nominated Robert Ford for the post, a move seemed as though ties between Washington and Damascus were finally on the mend.

"The Obama administration decided on a reorientation of United States Middle-Eastern policy. One of the first moves as a result was to embrace Syria rather than to confront her," said Meital.

However, Meital believed that relationship began to sour once again. Washington increasingly disapproves of the "Assad regime," and began cutting back on its embrace.

On the other hand, the bond is ever closer between the Saudis and Egyptians and the U.S. under President Barack Obama.

Meital felt that the U.S. position, particularly during the first year of Obama's tenure, has moved ever closer to that of the Arab moderates, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

When Obama first entered the world of Middle-Eastern diplomacy, it was with a very public bang. On June 4 last year, he gave what the White House labeled as a key message to the Muslim world. Speaking in Cairo, he made clear his thoughts on the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim and Arab worlds.

"It was all about public diplomacy and public appearances. He made a lot of noise and a lot of declarations," said Meital.

Since then, though, Cairo and Riyadh have attempted to take him towards a more realistic approach. "This is true both regarding Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

In terms of the bilateral relationship between the Egyptians and Saudis, Meital suggests that these days there is no real battle between them for the right to be named the most important Arab state. That was something that occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Lowe agreed. "There seems to be perhaps less public friction about who has the mantle of the ultimate leader, and that's possible because despite the great differences in the natures of the regimes, many of their common geopolitical interests mean that they are able to put those aside," he said.

That is likely why Assad reportedly chose to stay away from Sharm on Thursday. Many of his key regional interests are almost diametrically opposed to those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is why the regional headlines on Wednesday spoke of the importance of the gathering. With the cancellation of the parley, it seems such a summit will most likely not be happening anytime soon.



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