And so to another Arab summit. There was a time when the Arab street would shrug and say “so what?” The most we hoped for was that our leaders would not embarrass us, especially those who used the occasion to showboat and who would leave any feelings of national duty—assuming they had any in the first place—at home.
2002 changed all that. Saudi Arabia, already beginning to feel they had a new, more robust role to play in the region, put forward a peace plan that gave a patina of credibility to an occasion whose high point used to be the arrival of President Khadafy’s female bodyguards. The plan was rejected by the Israelis but five years on, we detect a political change in the wind and the initiative, while not embraced, has not been rejected out of hand.
There are reasons for this. There is Iraq; Saudi Arabia has a new king and new wealth through oil, capital markets and real estate. Because of the terrible outcome of the Iraq war and the American need for regional chums, the Saudis today are closer to the Americans and no doubt feel that the way forward in regaining Arab prestige and dignity, not to mention being taken more seriously by the international community, is through leveraging economic success and consolidating alliances. It is the new regional realpolitik.
That the Arabs are re-submitting a peace plan also restores another important dynamic: Arabs are reclaiming ownership of Arab issues. Palestine is an Arab problem not an Iranian problem and Saudi Arabia, along with the other gulf powerhouses, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait and Jordan can make a difference. They are credible nations that have made economic growth a priority.
And finally we have Syria, the current enfant terrible of the region and a country on whom the international jury is still out. Should the world cozy-up to Damascus or watch the regime wither on the bow? Here Saudi Arabia can also help. As we pointed out in our last issue, Saudi businessmen are already investing in Syria; the next step should be to warn Damascus of the dangers of isolation and the price it may have to pay for its outrageous insolence in Lebanon. It should also remind the regime that the international community will not tolerate its bull-headed belligerence forever.
But can Syria ever be a positive force for good in the region under the current regime?
Sadly, as history has demonstrated, it has yet to prove it can.