RIYADH, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and cradle of Islam, but does not always punch its weight in the Middle East, where Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy more popular appeal than any Arab government.
Any Saudi aspirations to exert decisive leadership in a fractured Arab world, or even to match the influence of non-Arab powers like Iran, Turkey and Israel, for now remain just that.
“The Saudi challenge is to develop a vision to fill the vacuum in the region, to have an active, principled foreign policy and to play a bigger role,” said Awadh al-Badi, a scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.
“Now we are a status quo country that usually only reacts to things, although there have been some initiatives like King Abdullah’s recent call for Arab reconciliation and unity.”
Saudi Arabia’s boldest move of the decade — a sweeping Arab peace plan that it sponsored in 2002 and relaunched in 2007 — was rebuffed by Israel and all but ignored by the United States.
That experience bruised and embittered the Saudis.
King Abdullah told an Arab summit held last month during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip that the Arab peace offer remained on the table, but would not stay there for ever.
In sharper language, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to London and Washington, wrote in the Financial Times last month that Israel had come close to “killing the prospect of peace” with its Gaza onslaught, in which about 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
“Unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk,” he warned. Outgoing President George W. Bush had left a “sickening legacy” in the Middle East.
Riyadh’s alarm at the outcome of the Iraq war and its dismay at Bush’s unstinting backing for Israel have given way to wary hope that President Barack Obama will shift course, along with concern that he might deal with Iran at the kingdom’s expense.
“Obama inspires an odd mix of admiration and fear with Saudi leaders,” said one Western diplomat in the Saudi capital.
Another diplomat said the Saudis liked Obama’s talk of respect for the Muslim world, but were sceptical that any U.S. administration would exert enough pressure on Israel to yield a Palestinian state on the lands it captured in a 1967 war.
The Saudi-inspired Arab proposal offered Israel full recognition in return for such a state with East Jerusalem as its capital and an agreed solution for Palestinian refugees. No two-state peace deal on these terms is anywhere in sight.
“Saudi Arabia seemed to offer a grander, more detached role in proposing the Arab peace plan — twice — but direct Saudi engagement with Israel is a no-no,” said Neil Partrick, a Middle East expert at the American University of Sharjah.
“And the Gaza conflict has made it harder for the Saudis even to underline the peace plan.”
Ordinary Saudis, like Arabs elsewhere, were angered by the death and destruction endured by Gazans — potent images for the militant Islamists with whom the kingdom has had to contend.
“As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unresolved, the region will be radicalised,” said Badi, the Saudi scholar.
Qatar joined Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas last month in calling for the withdrawal of the 2002 Arab initiative.
Saudi diplomacy elsewhere has also stuttered.
King Abdullah persuaded rival Palestinian factions to sign a reconciliation pact in Mecca in February 2007, only to see it collapse when Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip from President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement four months later.
He has avoided further mediation with the Palestinians, leaving Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to try and mend the Hamas-Fatah rift. Turkey has also hosted indirect talks between Syria and Israel, while Qatar has mediated in Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan.
Partrick said no Arab country was well-placed to take on the leadership once claimed by Egypt in Arab nationalism’s heyday.
“The region is divided, there is no substantial Arab-Israeli peace process, or any clear way forward in Iraq,” he said. “Saudi Arabia believes Iraq has moved into the Iranian orbit.”
Saudis share Gulf Arab jitters that a U.S. engagement with Iran might somehow allow the Shi’ite Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapons and throw its weight around more in the region, but they also see potential benefits in any detente.
“If a U.S.-Iran negotiation stops Iran’s nuclear programme or guarantees it is peaceful, this is in the Saudi national interest,” said Badi. In any case, the United States would not “sacrifice the Gulf, with all its oil” in favour of Iran.
Saudi Arabia has striven to insulate its bedrock oil-for-security relationship with America from the Arab-Israeli conflict, tensions arising from al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, and challenges from the region’s Iran-led radical camp.
But this has placed the kingdom in an awkward position.
Prince Turki said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had recognised Saudi Arabia as leader of the Arab and Muslim world when he urged it recently to lead a jihad against Israel.
“So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls,” he wrote, adding that pursuing them would spawn chaos and bloodshed. “But every day this restraint becomes harder to maintain.”