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Analysis: Saudi king seeks leading role

By
CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia's new king, Abdullah, is vying for a leading role in the Arab world, hoping to steer Arabs and Muslims out of troubled waters, away from terrorism and to eradicate misconceptions within Islam.

"The recent manifestation of extremism, violence and terrorism that are plaguing Muslims and non-Muslims alike has alarmed Saudi Arabia and made it clear that an endemic problem currently exists in the Islamic world," said the king in a "highly confidential" policy document made available to United Press International.

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The document was drawn up as leaders of the Islamic world, responding to an invitation from Abdullah, convened in Mecca Dec. 7 and 8 for an extraordinary summit within the framework of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

"King Abdullah realizes that at no other time in history has the Islamic world been so leaderless," Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security adviser told UPI.

Abdullah recognizes Saudi Arabia's "great responsibility of moral leadership" in the Arab and Islamic world, and as such, hopes to assume a leading role in guiding the Muslim world through the multitude of problems it is facing today, said Obaid.

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The Saudi king believes "a vast majority of Muslim countries today face political, economic and social underdevelopment that has evolved into a major crisis." The king is concerned by the "diminishing position of Muslims in the international arena." He made reference to the incapacity of Arabs and Muslims to prevent the invasion of Iraq war and their inability to influence peace in the aftermath of the invasion.

As king, Abdullah realizes he has the tools and the power to take over the leadership of the Arab and the Islamic world. Some of these tools come in the form of dollars earned from the rising price of oil. As the world's largest oil-producing nation, the kingdom has no shortfall of hard cash to distribute around and buy itself influence and friends, and quite possibly a seat at the head of the table.

Pakistan, for example, just saw its financial aid package from Saudi Arabia rise from $550 million to a whopping billion-dollar plus.

Calling for unity among Muslims, Abdullah lashed out at al-Qaida terrorists for "unleashing evil and corruption on earth and urged Islamic leaders meeting in Mecca to fight terrorism jointly."

In his address to the leaders of the OIC, Abdullah asked Muslim countries to open a new era of strength and unity by setting aside differences. He urged Islamic leaders to work together to bring about an end to extremism. Instead, the king asked that Muslim leaders work together to project the "beauty of Islamic tolerance."

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Abdullah told his fellow Muslim leaders, most of who were in attendance, to stop "sitting as helpless observers" but to join the fight against international terrorism.

Saudi Arabia has in the past been the target of homegrown terrorism. Islamist groups said to be affiliated with Osama bin Laden, a former Saudi citizen, have carried out a wave of terror bombings, kidnappings and attacks against security forces and civilians in the kingdom. But decisive -- though initially delayed -- action by Saudi authorities has practically eradicated the dissident revolt. December will mark one year without any terrorist attack in the kingdom.

One Saudi intelligence analyst described the current status of al-Qaida in the kingdom as "destroyed but not exterminated."

In his quest for regional leadership, Abdullah, according to an adviser, will give "top priority to solving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute." Commenting on the coming elections in Israel, the Saudi king said of Israel's Labor candidate Amir Peretz, "We think he is a man of peace." A highly unusual statement from a member of the Saudi royal family regarding an Israeli politician.

The Saudi king has recognized the fact the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains at the center of much of the Arab world's anger and that groups such as al-Qaida use the Palestinian issue as a recruiting poster.

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Obaid told UPI the king will make "huge investments in the Palestinian areas in order to beef up the economy and to create jobs."

Would the king consider a peace treaty with Israel? "This will happen if all United Nations resolutions are met and if (occupied) territories are returned, including East Jerusalem, which would then become the capital of the future Palestinian state," said Obaid.

"If all conditions of the Abdullah peace initiative are met, Saudi Arabia will recognize Israel," Obaid said during a private discussion in Jeddah.

While still crown prince, Abdullah had put forward an initiative at the Beirut Arab summit in 2002 that became known as the Abdullah peace initiative.

"The king," went on Obaid, "wants to see a viable Palestinian state and he will use all his influence to achieve it." The Saudi security adviser said the king is ready to place Saudi Arabia's financial and international clout, as well as it influence with the United States to help the Palestinian territories climb out of their misery.

Noticeably absent from the summit were two Arab powerhouses -- Egypt and Syria -- who in the past have fought Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Arab world. But urgent domestic problems kept both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad at home.

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Mubarak is faced with severe violence that marred a week of voting in his country, while Assad, preoccupied by the ongoing U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, feels it would be unwise to leave Damascus at this time.

At 85, Abdullah will certainly have his work cut out for him. He comes, however, with a great advantage over many of his peers. He is reputed to be extremely honest and incorruptible. "He does not own any villas in Marbella," said Obaid.

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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