King Salman pushes for united stance against Iran at Arab summit

Arab leaders focus on Jerusalem as major powers face off over Syria

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Saudi Arabia’s King Salman criticised Donald Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem as leaders of the Arab world met in the Kingdom for an annual summit.

Seventeen Arab leaders, minus Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, gathered in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran as world powers face off over Syria and tensions rise between Riyadh and Tehran.

Opening the 29th Arab League Summit, King Salman said terrorism was the biggest challenge facing Arab leaders and avoided mention of Syria as the meeting opened a day after US-led airstrikes on suspected chemical weapons targets in the country.

King Salman instead focused on Iran and Palestine. He condemned the US plan to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking anger among the Palestinians and the Arab world, who see the city as the capital of their future state.

He said that the Kingdom will donate $150 million to maintain Islamic heritage in East Jerusalem and called the meeting the “Jerusalem Summit”.

"I name this summit in Dhahran the Jerusalem summit so that the entire world knows Palestine and its people remain at the heart of Arab concerns," he said, adding that "East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Palestinian territories."

Arab leaders also voiced their unwavering support and unity for Palestinians in their opening remarks.

Islamic holy sites in the city, including the revered Al Aqsa mosque  are administered by a Jordanian-run trust known as the Waqf.

King Salman also announced a $50 million donation to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The organisation provides aid to more than three million people but is facing serious financial difficulties after Washington announced it was cutting its funds.

In mid-March, UNRWA said it did not have the necessary funds to continue running until the summer.

The strongest criticism of the Trump administration came from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who slammed US decisions on Jerusalem and its decision to withhold millions of dollars to the UN agency that provides health care, education and social services to an estimated five million Palestinians.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit criticised the lack of consensus among Arab states on matters of regional security, adding that "joint action is necessary in fighting these crises".

"The crises burning in some corners of the Arab world today... cast a shadow over the safety and security over the entire region," Mr Aboul-Gheit said. "These take a toll on the national security of all of us."

The King also denounced Iran’s “blatant interference” in Arab affairs as the Kingdom is pushing for a tough and unified stance against Tehran. He told Arab leaders that Iran was to blame for instability and meddling in the region.

“We renew our strong condemnation of Iran's terrorist acts in the Arab region and reject its blatant interference in the affairs of Arab countries," he said.

The King said Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, had fired 116 missiles at the kingdom since Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen three years ago to try to roll back Houthi gains there.

The summit comes as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt are locked off in a months-long diplomatic dispute with Qatar accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charges.

Qatar was not represented by a senior official at the summit, instead its delegation was headed by Doha's permanent representative to the Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam Al Buainain. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed Qatar's delegation at last year's Arab summit in Jordan.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said on Thursday that Qatar’s crisis would not be on the table at the Arab League summit, Al Arabiya reported.

Most of the 22 other countries are represented by heads of state or government.