Saudi king starts tour of region with Egypt

Observers say "unity tour" is aimed at consolidating Arab power amid rising threats from Iran and political groups such as Hizbollah.

CAIRO // The king of Saudi Arabia yesterday met Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El Sheikh to kick off a four-nation "Arab Unity Tour". There were no immediate comments yesterday from officials on what was discussed in the meeting. But analysts say King Abdullah's visits this week to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are aimed at consolidating Arab power amid growing threats that Iran and its client states and political groups might destabilise the region.

"The Saudis and the Egyptians are anxious about growing Iranian power and influence," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics. "This is another meeting that basically they are trying to co-ordinate their actions and trying to decide what is the most effective position vis-à-vis Iran." Middle East political analysts also said the meetings would focus on Lebanon and the question of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is weighing whether to enter direct negotiations despite Israel's having offered no guarantees that it will halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. In yesterday's meeting, Prof Gerges said, Saudi Arabia and Egypt perhaps sought to form a common position on direct talks - one that would help revive the peace process without diminishing Mr Abbas's credibility with regard to Hamas, the Islamist political party that opposes Mr Abbas and receives support from Iran.

"My take on the meeting is that the Egyptians and the Saudis will basically decide that the conditions are not right for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Prof Gerges said in an interview on Tuesday. "They will decide that such direct negotiations will play into the hands of the resistance and indirectly into the hands of Iran and Syria." In Lebanon, recent statements by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist political party and militia, threaten to unbalance that country's sensitive political arrangement.

According to analysts, King Abdullah is attempting to reconcile Mr Mubarak with Syria's president, Bashar Assad, whose co-operation is seen as vital to quelling Mr Nasrallah's anger at a United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, whose death in 2005 was widely blamed on Hizbollah and its patron state, Syria. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a think tank in London, said: "The rapprochement that the Saudis are doing with Syria is to keep stability in Lebanon, to quiet the drums of war. The Saudis, and of course Saad Hariri [the Lebanese prime minister], are concerned about any conflict erupting because of the tribunal."

The political divisions of the broader Arab world are writ large in Lebanon, where a carefully planned unity government in 2008 united fractured political forces whose ties to political actors outside the country have proved deeply destabilising for the Mediterranean country. Mr Nasrallah told reporters on Sunday that he expected multiple Hizbollah leaders to face indictments by a United Nations special tribunal, charged with investigating Hariri's assassination - an international judicial body Mr Nasrallah called "an Israeli project".

Mr Nasrallah's statement spread jitters to other Arab nations, who fear a return to Lebanon's recent history of violent political infighting. King Abdullah appears poised to convince Mr Assad to travel with him to Lebanon for meetings tomorrow. An unnamed Lebanese government official told Agence France-Presse yesterday that Mr Assad planned to accompany the Saudi monarch to Lebanon. Mr Assad has not visited Lebanon since before the 2005 assassination.

But first, Saudi diplomats tried to find common cause with Egypt, a country that remains deeply distrustful of Syria since the 2008-2009 Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave dominated by Hamas, an Iranian-backed Sunni Islamist militia and political party. During those attacks, Syria and Hizbollah foisted significant blame on Egypt, accusing it of colluding with Israel against the people of Gaza.

Saudi Arabia has chosen a vulnerable moment for Iran, said Prof Gerges. The United Nations, responding to Iran's continued lack of co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a fourth round of sanctions against the Islamic republic in June, followed by sanctions from the European Union earlier this week. Aside from achieving piecemeal progress on Lebanese stability, efforts to further isolate Iran by drawing Syria back into the fold of Arab nations may be quixotic, said Mr Shehadi. Despite cooling diplomacy between Syria and Lebanon, Syria has savoured its more provocative role as an Iranian partner.

"I don't think there are any illusions on the part of the Saudis or the Egyptians that they will create a significant rift between Syria and Iran or between Syria and Hizbollah," said Mr Shehadi. "These are cards that the Syrians play that are very useful for them, so they will never give them up. Syria capitalises on them."