Saudis step up role in Mideast
Saudi Arabia waded into the intractable conflict between rival Palestinian factions Tuesday, hosting a reconciliation conference between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah, rivals that have been fighting in the streets for weeks.Skip to next paragraph
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Finding a solution to the internal power struggle could have a considerable regional impact. But much more is driving Saudi Arabia's renewed interest than brokering a Palestinian peace deal, say analysts.
At the root of this conference and other recent diplomatic moves lies Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia's long-running rivalry with Shiite Persian Iran for influence in the Middle East, particularly over armed factions.
The Palestinian conflict is only one of the flash points in which the Saudis are more actively trying to counter the influence of Iran, which has spread its support to Hamas and other militant groups, say analysts. In Lebanon, it backs the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the Shiite militant group Hizbullah, which receives funding from Iran. In Iraq, it is building ties to Sunni insurgent groups, say diplomats, as a possible counter to Iranian support for Shiite militants if the US withdraws.
With the regional perception of a weakened US in the region as a consequence of the war in Iraq and its own concerns about Iran's regional ambitions, analysts say Saudi Arabia feels it has little choice to take a more active role. Also driving this, they say, is a concern within the ruling structure of Saudi Arabia that when the US leaves Iraq, the region may be faced with a broader conflict.
"Saudi Arabia is pursuing two tracks," says Toby Jones, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a historian of modern Saudi Arabia.
"One is simply to preserve the status quo, to try to stabilize the region. The other is the fact that there could be broader conflict in, and if that happens, they want all of their supporters and allies to be well positioned," he says.
There appears to be a great deal of concern in Riyadh that Iran's alliance with Iraq's Shiite government is strengthening, while leading Sunni Arabs there, who have had close ties to the Saudi regime, may be completely shut out of the government.
Also, the Saudis appear to be just as concerned about Iran's nuclear program as the US is, say analysts.
But Wayne White, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, says most of the regional moves being made by Saudi Arabia and Iran these days amount to jockeying for position in Iraq.
The Saudis "are very deeply concerned about the prospect of an American withdrawal from Iran and an American war weariness that will make the US involvement more limited,'' he says. "The Saudis see they have to get more involved ... they see the US star setting in Iraq, and that can lead to a bruising regional power grab involving all sorts of actors, including Iran."
"If a full-blown civil war gets under way, which is quite likely, then you would see this thing expanding rapidly into the region, with the Iranians rushing to assist their Shiite allies in Iraq and the Sunnis rushing to bolster the Sunni Arabs."