RIYADH — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has told Arab leaders that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is illegal and warned that unless Arab governments settle their differences, foreign powers like the United States will continue to dictate the region’s politics.
The king’s speech Wednesday, at the opening of the Arab League summit meeting here, underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at U.S. urging.
The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally.
They brokered a deal between the two main Palestinian factions last month, but one that Israel and the United States found deeply problematic because it added to the power of the radical group Hamas rather than the more moderate Fatah.
In addition, Abdullah this month invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Riyadh, while the Americans want him shunned.
And in trying to settle the tensions in Lebanon, the Saudis have been willing to negotiate with Iran and Hezbollah.
Last week, the Saudi king canceled his appearance next month at a White House dinner in his honor, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The official reason given was a scheduling conflict, the paper said.
Mustapha Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said the Saudis were sending Washington a message. “They are telling the U.S. they need to listen to their allies rather than imposing decisions on them and always taking Israel’s side,” Hamarneh said.
Abdullah has not publicly spoken so harshly about the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq before, and his latest remarks suggest that his alliance with Washington may be less harmonious than administration officials have been hoping.
Since last summer, the administration has asserted that a realignment is occurring in the Middle East, one that groups Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon along with Israel against Iran, Syria and the militant groups those countries back, Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas.
Washington has urged Riyadh to take a leading role in such a realignment but is finding itself disappointed by the results.
Some in Riyadh said the king’s speech was in fact a response to comments Monday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on Arab governments to “begin reaching out to Israel.”
The plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all land it won in the 1967 war in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the Arab world. It also calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Regarding the Palestinians, the king said Wednesday, “It has become necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so that the peace process can move in an atmosphere far from oppression and force.”
With regard to Iraq, the Saudis seem to be paying some attention to internal U.S. politics. The Senate on Tuesday backed legislation calling for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for further funding for the war.
Last November, officials in Riyadh realized that a Democratic upset could spell major changes for the Middle East: a possible pullout from Iraq, fueling further instability and, more important, allowing Iran to extend its influence in the region.
Turki al-Rasheed, who runs a organization promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia, said the king was “saying we may be moving on the same track, but our ends are different.”
“Bush wants to make it look like he is solving the problem,” Rasheed said. “The king wants to actually solve the problems.”
Abdullah said the loss of confidence in Arab leaders had allowed U.S. and other forces to hold significant sway in the region.
“If confidence is restored, it will be accompanied by credibility,” he said, “and if credibility is restored, then the winds of hope will blow, and then we will never allow outside forces to define our future nor allow banners to be raised in Arab lands other than those of Arabism, brothers.”
“The weight of the Saudis has ensured that this will be a problem-free summit,” said Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the Jordanian daily Al Ghad. “Nobody is going to veer from the message and go against the Saudis. But that doesn’t mean the problems themselves will be solved.”
Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations gave a stark assessment in an address to the meeting, saying in unsparing language that the region was “more complex, more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for a very long time.”
There is a shocking daily loss of life in Iraq, the South Korean said, and Somalia is in the grip of “banditry, violence and clan rivalries.”
Iran, which on Saturday had sanctions imposed against it by the Security Council for the second time, is “forging ahead with its nuclear program heedless of regional and international concerns,” Ban added.
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Rasheed Abou-Alsamh from Jidda and Warren Hoge from Riyadh.