x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

Saudi summit is an opportunity to bridge divide

The sectarian lens in Syria and elsewhere obscures a more complex situation - Syrians have been living shoulder by shoulder for millennia, after all.

As the violence in Syria worsens, the conflict is increasingly being cast a sectarian war. But that is a misreading of the dynamics: this is a war between a despotic family regime and a disparate and disorganised opposition. The regime has recruited from its own Alawite sect, but as our columnist Faisal Al Yafai notes in these pages, sectarianism did not cause this conflict.

But as that narrative continues to solidify, the sectarian lens in Syria and elsewhere obscures a more complex situation - Syrians have been living shoulder by shoulder for millennia, after all. There are different ways to define the divide: Sunni versus Shiite, or even simplistically as Saudi Arabia versus Iran. Those perspectives are myopic, but the rhetoric of sectarian enmity feeds upon itself.

At the same time, there is a worrying trend of sectarian tension, and not just in countries where uprisings have played their course. Bombings in Iraq that killed more than 100 people yesterday offered another grim reminder of the killings and reprisals that spiralled out of control in 2005. With regime change in Syria and Lebanon's ever-simmering mix, the Arab uprisings have only added to this poisonous sectarianism.

Over the past 18 months outside powers - both near and far - have played pivotol roles in revolutions in the Arab Spring. Sometimes their role has been passive, as in Egypt, and sometimes it has been active, as in Libya. That is realpolitik: countries have a stake in regional stability and - whether invited or not - will seek to influence events.

So the announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Sunday was tacit recognition of the interdependence of regional states, as well as a reminder of Saudi Arabia's prominent role in regional politics and regional affairs.

King Abdullah has called for an emergency summit of Muslim nations to be convened on August 14 to discuss "this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition".

Details of the proposed summit have yet to be released, but the region badly needs an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue on its challenges, sectarian and otherwise. Although the term "sedition" raises some concerns - the recent political unrest across the region has taught us that political outreach must be the first step - the goals of the dialogue must still be defined.

Saudi Arabia has long hosted Muslim nations for dialogue on political, social and religious issues. This summit must address this festering sectarian divide. The region needs it, and so does the world.