x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Clinton arrives to build support

The US secretary of state meets Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to rally Arab support for tougher sanctions on Iran.

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is greeted by the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is greeted by the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.

RIYADH // The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, met here yesterday with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz as part of a visit to the Gulf to rally Arab support for tougher sanctions on Iran, and allay Arab disillusionment with President Barack Obama's policies in the region. Mrs Clinton arrived from Doha, where she delivered a lengthy address on Sunday asking for patience with the Obama administration, which had promised changes in how the US dealt with the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

"I understand why people might be impatient," Mrs Clinton said in her remarks at the US-Islamic World Forum, a conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, and the Qatari government. "But building a stronger relationship cannot happen overnight or even in a year," she added. "It takes patience, persistence, and hard work from all of us." The Arab-Israeli conflict undoubtedly was a top priority in Mrs Clinton's discussions with King Abdullah. King Abdullah sent his royal bus, whose interior is reportedly designed to look like a living room, to the Riyadh airport to pick up the US secretary of state for the one hour or so ride to his luxurious desert camp. There, after a bountiful lunch, Mrs Clinton and King Abdullah met for about four hours. She and the Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal held a brief press conference back at Riyadh airport before Mrs Clinton flew to Jeddah. Mrs Clinton said that "the king and the foreign minister and I discussed how best to relaunch credible and productive negotiations on Middle East peace that will achieve both parties' aspirations". Prince Saud said the afternoon discussions had covered numerous topics: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US administration's retreat last year from its initial demand that Israel immediately halt all settlement activity has led to growing disappointment and frustration in the Arab world, sentiments reportedly also felt by the Saudi government. But Mrs Clinton had paved the way for a good meeting with the king when she spoke on Sunday of how the Saudi-initiated 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is "vital" for reaching a regional peace settlement. "It is time to renew its spirit today and move to specifics," she added.

The initiative is dear to King Abdullah's heart and is the basis for Saudi policy on the decades-old conflict. It promises full normalisation between Israel and all its Arab neighbours in return for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967; establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a just settlement for Palestinian refugees. US officials have also told reporters that Mrs Clinton would ask the king to use his influence to press China not to block tough new sanctions on Iran that the United States will bring to the United Nations Security Council. Asked yesterday about press reports that the US has asked Saudi Arabia to reassure China that its petroleum needs will be met if it supports new sanctions against Iran, Prince Saud replied that China takes its responsibilities as a UN Security Council member "very seriously and they need no suggestion from Saudi Arabia to do what they ought to do".

Some press reports say the United States will urge Saudi Arabia to reassure China that its petroleum needs will be filled if Iran cuts off China in retaliation. But some Arab observers are sceptical that Mrs Clinton will gain co-operation. "If Clinton is here to encourage them to have some kind of pressure on China, I think she has come to the wrong place," said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political scientist at UAE University.

In her address on Sunday, Mrs Clinton cited Mr Obama's attempts to engage Iran diplomatically after decades of mutual hostility. But she added that Washington does not "want to be engaging while they're building their bomb". Calling on Iran to "reconsider its dangerous policy decisions", she noted that since October "Iranian officials have refused every offer to meet on its nuclear programme. These actions, understandably, have caused us to wonder: What does Iran have to hide?" "Proliferation is not something we can look at lightly," Prince Saud said yesterday adding that if Iran continues with its current policies, "it will provide the impetus for further proliferation and God forbid [that we] see the region full of atomic weapons".

In separate remarks to an audience of students in Doha yesterday morning, she sharpened her portrayal of Iran, declaring that Iran "is moving toward a military dictatorship". She cited the Revolutionary Guard's increasing control over Iran's social, political and economic institutions. Mr Abdullah, the political scientist, said in a phone interview Mr Obama "is doing a good job to open dialogue" with Iran, but that "this is not the place to "talk tough towards Tehran" because it increases tension between the Gulf states and Iran. Elaborating on her charge that Iran is becoming a "military dictatorship", Mrs Clinton yesterday said: "I think the change in Iran from democratically elected governments, which had the support of the Iranian people to what we see today is very dramatic and troubling. "And increasingly, more and more aspects of Iranian society, the security apparatus, are being controlled not by the clerical leadership, not by the political leadership but by the Revolutionary Guard. "I share the [Saudi] foreign minister's hope that this is not a permanent change but that instead the religious and political leaders of Iran act to take back the authority which they should be exercising on behalf of the people," Mrs Clinton said.

Mrs Clinton also sought to reassure her audience that the United States is still committed to finding an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She stressed in particular that US policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank "has not changed; we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements". But eight months after Mr Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo raised Arab expectations of a new US posture towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is little patience for more words.

"There's an American saying, 'If you cannot convince them with wisdom, dazzle them with BS'," said a Riyadh businessman, Turki al Rasheed. Mr al Rasheed, speaking by phone from the Jeddah Economic Forum, expressed the exasperation felt by many Arabs at what they see as US bias in favour of Israel. "When it comes to the Israeli cause, it has to be paid advance," Mr al Rasheed said. "But with the Arabs, it's always deferred payment and even then it has to be rescheduled and rescheduled."

He noted that the Arab Peace Initiative had been on the table for more than six years now. "What did we get out of it?" "That's the key issue everyone is watching," Mr Abdullah of UAE University said. "Obama and Clinton need to show more determination because they are dealing with a very stubborn person, [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and a very right-wing government. "People here expect Washington has clout and they are not delivering yet, especially when it comes to settlements," Mr Abdullah added. "They thought Washington would not blink, and they did."

Mrs Clinton also met the foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal. She is in Jeddah today where she will answer questions from students at the all-female Dar Al Hekmah College, and meet Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. cmurphy@thenational.ae