From the New York Times :
With the prospect of three civil wars looming over the Middle East — and Iran poised to gain from them all — Saudi Arabia has abandoned its behind-the-scenes checkbook diplomacy and taken on a central, aggressive role in reshaping the region’s conflicts.
On Tuesday, the kingdom is playing host in Mecca to the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two feuding Palestinian factions, in what both sides say could lead to a national unity government and reduced bloodshed. Last fall, senior Saudi officials met secretly with Israeli leaders about how to establish a Palestinian state.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has also increased its public involvement in Iraq and its support of the Sunni-led government in Lebanon. The process is shaping up as a counteroffensive to efforts by Iran to establish itself as the regional superpower, according to diplomats, analysts and officials here and throughout the region. Some even say that the recent Saudi commitment to temper the price of oil is aimed at undermining Iran’s economy, although officials here deny that.
“We realized that we have to wake up,” said a high-ranking Saudi diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “Someone rang the bell, ‘Be careful, something is moving.’ ”
The shift is occurring with encouragement from the Bush administration. Its goal is to see an American-backed alliance of Sunni Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, along with a Fatah-led Palestine and Israel, opposing Iran, Syria and the radical groups they support.
Yet Riyadh’s goals may not always be in alignment with those of the White House, and could complicate American interests.
The Saudi effort has been taken in collaboration with its traditional Persian Gulf allies and Egypt and Jordan, but it also represents another significant shift in a region undergoing a profound reshuffling. The changes are linked to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the transfer of power from Sunni Muslims to Shiites in Iraq, analysts said. They also reach back many years to the gradual decline in influence of Cairo and the collapse of a pan-Arab agenda, analysts and diplomats said.
“The Saudis felt that the Iranian role in the region has become influential, especially in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and that the Iranian role was undermining their role in the region,” said Muhammad al-Sakr, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Kuwaiti Parliament. “Usually the Saudis prefer to maneuver behind the scenes. Lately they’ve been noticeably active.”
From the Washington Post :
22 years Prince Bandar bin Sultan wheeled and dealed his way through Washington as Saudi Arabia's ambassador. By his account -- provided expansively to favored journalists -- he had a hand in most of America's major initiatives in the Middle East over a generation. During George W. Bush's presidency, for example, he brokered U.S. rapprochement with Libya and previewed plans for the invasion of Iraq two months before the war.
For a while after returning home in the summer of 2005, Bandar kept a low profile. Some speculated he was out of favor with the kingdom's ruler, Abdullah, despite his appointment as national security adviser. Now he's back: Since the beginning of the year the prince has suddenly begun wheeling and dealing his way around the Middle East.
In the past month Bandar has held three meetings with the Iranian national security chief, Ali Larijani, most recently last Wednesday in Riyadh. He's met twice with Vladimir Putin, in Moscow and Riyadh, to talk about Middle East affairs; overseen talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders; and quietly shuttled to Washington to brief President Bush. He helped broker this month's Palestinian accord on a unity government as well as a Saudi-Iranian understanding to cool political conflict in Lebanon. And he's been talking with the most senior officials of the Iranian and U.S. governments about whether there's a way out of the standoff over Iran's nuclear weapons.
Can Bandar bail the United States out of the multiple crises it has stumbled into in the Middle East? Maybe not, but Washington's old friend may be one of the best bets a desperate Bush administration has going at the moment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has maneuvered herself into a corner by refusing to talk to Syria and Iran and boycotting the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Consequently there's little the United States can do diplomatically to defuse the conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, not to mention Iraq. Rice tried calling on Egypt, abruptly dropping the administration's previous urging that its autocratic government "lead the way" in democratizing the Middle East. But Egypt has been unable to deliver: It tried and failed to pry Syria away from its alliance with Iran, and it tried and failed to win concessions from Hamas.
That leaves Saudi Arabia and the hyperkinetic Bandar. In his last visit to Washington he offered a rosy report on his travels. Iran, he assured his American friends, had been taken aback by President Bush's recent shows of strength in the region, by the failure of his administration to collapse after midterm elections and by the unanimous passage of a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Tehran for failing to stop its nuclear program. The mullahs, he said, were worried about Shiite-Sunni conflict spreading from Iraq around the region, and about an escalating conflict with the United States; they were interested in tamping both down.
Bandar and Larijani already worked to stop incipient street fighting between Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement and pro-Western Sunni and Christian parties several weeks ago. But the Saudis have bigger plans: Bandar reported to Washington that he's hoping to split Iran from Syria -- reversing the maneuver that Egypt tried. The means would be a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran over a Lebanese settlement that included authorization of a U.N. tribunal to try those responsible for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. That would be poison to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who almost certainly was behind the murder.
Washington tried to set a couple of red lines for the Mecca talks: Hamas, it said, should be forced to accept international demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel; and its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, should not lead the new Palestinian cabinet. Bandar disregarded both.That doesn't mean the old Bush family friend is not still welcome at the White House. The Palestinian deal was secondary for Bandar; his main aim is to defuse the multiple threats posed by Iran. If he can find a way to broker a deal that stops the Iranian nuclear program, and kick-starts a strategic dialogue between Tehran and Washington, it will be his greatest feat of all.