Double standards, hypocrisy, and a lack of regional understanding.
These are the accusations made by leaders of 57 Arab and Muslim nations that gathered over the weekend in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, against the West, particularly the US.
Foreign ministers asked me how it can be that while the West condemns Russia for killing people in Ukraine, it “gives a green light to Israel to do the same in Gaza”?
The Joint Arab Islamic Extraordinary Summit brought together princes, presidents, and prime ministers in the opulent setting of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. A world away from the demolished landscape of Gaza, the meeting took place amid enormous floral bouquets and sparkling chandeliers.
Israel and its allies took the entire blame for the conflict, including the loss of life and property. When Hamas launched a tremendous military reaction on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, no one criticized the group. The secretary general of the Arab League declared that Israel had broken the law.
“We warn of the disastrous repercussions of the retaliatory aggression by Israel against the Gaza Strip, which amounts to a war crime,” the last statement read. “We warn of the real danger of the expansion of the war as a result of Israel’s refusal to stop its aggression and of the inability of the [UN] Security Council to enforce international law to end this aggression.”
Those I spoke with during the summit who thought Israel would pay much attention were few. Rather, it was evident that the United States, Israel’s largest ally, was the target of this conference and its intended unifying message. Leaders want enough pressure from the Biden administration and the West at large to put an end to the war before it begins.
However, they couldn’t agree on how to go about doing it. The unusual bedfellows assembled for the meeting show how concerned the region is about events in Gaza spiraling out of control.
Iran, Israel’s principal foe, was represented at the event by President Ebrahim Raisi, who strode down the carpeted corridors wearing his black cleric’s robes, his security men in dark suits and collarless shirts scowling behind him. This was an unexpected sight in and of itself.
Prior to reconciling in March of this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran were bitter enemies who frequently leveled charges against one another. Iran still supports what many refer to as its “proxy militias”—Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen—so they still have conflicting goals.
These movements are seen by the Saudis and their conservative Arab allies, like Egypt and Jordan, as potential destabilizers.
President Raisi declared that action, not words, was needed in regards to Gaza as he left the Tehran airport for Riyadh.
However, those anticipating specific, punitive measures against the United States or the United Kingdom were let down. Opposition to the Abraham Accords was met with resistance by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two countries that had only lately established full diplomatic, trade, and security ties with Israel.
Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, attended the meeting as well. Because of the harsh measures used by his dictatorship during the Syrian civil war, he was considered a pariah in the Arab world until very recently. He informed the summit that without specific actions, nothing would be accomplished; nonetheless, ideas of an oil embargo or the removal of US bases from Arab nations were tactfully rejected.
Nonetheless, there is no doubting that the battle that followed the October 7th Hamas raid and altered the entire Middle Eastern paradigm.
The tectonic plates of regional politics were moving away from Iran and its militant partners’ interests until that deadly morning in southern Israel. Israel already had full diplomatic relations with six Arab countries, and Saudi Arabia was almost certainly going to follow. A few days prior to the Hamas raid, the Israeli minister of tourism paid a visit to Riyadh. Israel has been drawing a lot of Israeli tourists to Dubai, and Arab interest in Israel’s technological, biotech, and surveillance know-how is strong.
Gulf Arab monarchs had become weary of what they perceived to be the corruption, incompetence, and internal strife within the Palestinian leadership, with the exception of Qatar, which is home to the exiled political leaders of Hamas. Although they were sympathetic to the situation of the common Palestinian, who have been denied a state for seventy-five years, they mainly believed that Israel was too big a country to ignore and that it was time to move on and resume normal relations with it. Though it continued to come up in speeches, the issue of a future Palestinian state was receiving little real-world attention.
These Arab-Israeli relations are definitely deteriorating now, though they haven’t ruptured completely.
One Arab foreign minister said to me over the phone, “We are really worried about the radicalization of our youth.” “They watch what is happening in Gaza on TV and they are increasingly angry.”
Delegates repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction, saying that the Netanyahu government’s actions had gone beyond self-defense and were now leading the area into danger. Extremist narratives appear to be becoming more and more popular online, which is concerning.
Leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities are angry that the UN Security Council hasn’t done more to rein in Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The nations in the region that America refers to be its allies have suffered greatly as a result of its resistance to a ceasefire.
Washington’s strategic partnership with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states began in 1945 with a meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, the man who founded modern Saudi Arabia, on a US warship in the Red Sea during the war. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab countries still rely mostly on the US for their defense and security needs.
However, things are shifting beneath the surface. There has been a concern in the Gulf ever since the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” that the US is no longer a dependable ally and is losing interest in the area. Beijing and Moscow’s influences are dominating at the same time. The recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran was mediated by China. President Putin’s unwavering backing for President Assad of Syria has impressed Arab leaders. They draw comparisons between this and how swiftly Washington turned its back on Egypt’s President Mubarak in 2011 when demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
All of this does not imply that the West no longer has friends in the Middle East. Those Arab allies are obviously hesitant to engage Washington in more than just heated rhetoric. However, they do want their voices to be heard and the carnage in Gaza to end immediately, before things in the region and in their own nations spiral out of hand.