x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saudi king starts Arab tour in Egypt

King Abdullah will meet Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, today in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh to kick off a four-nation 'Arab Unity Tour'.

CAIRO // The king of Saudi Arabia will meet today with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El Sheikh to kick off a four-nation "Arab Unity Tour". 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 said the meetings will probably 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 today's meeting, Mr Gerges said, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will seek to form a common position on direct talks - one that will 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. "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 will seek 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 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." mbradley@thenational.ae