Egyptian politicians and intellectuals often claim that other Arabs borrow their ideas or attitudes from Egypt. It would not, therefore, be surprising if they claim that the Saudi rulers are copying president Husni Mubarak in their recent overtures to France, in an apparent attempt to distance themselves from the US, which has become very unpopular in the Muslim world. The Saudis would no doubt argue that although they are, like the Egyptians, allied to the US and have close political and business ties with it, they are not as servile as the Egyptians and have in fact been for some time under strong public attack from Washington for their generous charitable assistance to Muslims and Islamic organisations worldwide.
Since the Saudis derive their legitimacy from their being in control of the Haramain of Islam, namely Makkah and Madinah, they can be expected to seem less hostile to Islamic groups such as Hamas and the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, to which the Egyptian regime is openly hostile. This explains why they continue to communicate with Hamas, even since its electoral victory. Nevertheless, they cooperate closely with the US-led ‘war on terrorism', to the extent of providing information to American intelligence agencies on Islamic activists and groups. Moreover, the Saudis are widely seen as close allies of the US, and have come under suspicion in the Muslim world for maintaining these relations despite the US government's war on Islam and the Palestinians.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Saudi rulers feel the need to distance themselves from Uncle Sam. But although, unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with Israel and even invites Hamas leaders to visit the Arabian Peninsula and discuss financial aid, its strategy for distancing itself from Washington is as unconvincing as Mubarak's. The main plank of its recent strategy was president Jacques Chirac's much-publicised visit to the kingdom and his high-profile meetings with prominent Saudi individuals and organisations. Chirac, who began his visit on March 5, was accompanied by senior ministers, including the French defence, finance and foreign ministers. He was also accompanied by a large delegation of French businessmen and industrialists.
Apart from meeting the Saudi king and senior princes in charge of the main ministries and industrial and financial agencies, Chirac was also allowed to address the Majlis-e Shura, the Saudi analogue of a parliament. He was the first foreign ruler to appear before the advisory council, and his speech and the council leaders' replies were widely publicised: the full texts were published in Saudi newspapers and other Arab dailies, such as al-Hayat, owned by Saudi princes. He also addressed a joint meeting of Saudi and French businessmen and stressed his country's determination to expand the economic partnership between the two countries.
The meetings held between Chirac and Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, the Saudi king, and between Saudi and French ministers were also given wide publicity, although details were not publicised. The nature of the issues said to be tackled at the meetings – and, indeed, in the published speeches –was, however, clearly designed to give the impression that only very close allies would choose to address such complex issues and manage to reach a consensus on them. The two sides also tried to convey the impression that their positions on those issues are different from those adopted by the US. Three of these issues were the Israeli war on the Palestinians, the Syria-Lebanon confrontation, and Iran's nuclear programme.
King Abdullah wasted no time in proclaiming that there was a "complete French-Saudi consensus" on the main international issues. On the Israeli-Palestinian question, the French were not as supportive of Israel as the US, but Chirac and his ministers refused to blame Tel Aviv for the failure to achieve ‘peace', and insisted that Hamas should first recognise Israel. On Iran, the two agreed that the only way out of the impasse is negotiation and not war, but both failed to support Iran's right to develop nuclear energy. The only difference between their position and Washington's was that war was out of the question. Most Arab rulers in the Middle East are known to oppose Iran's plan – if there is one – to acquire nuclear capability, althoughIsrael is fully equipped with the latest nuclear armaments.
But although the Saudis chose the French as the most suitable partners for their effort to distance themselves from Washington, Abdullah also invited other members of the European Union to Riyadh. The EU countries are beginning to emerge – though not as strongly as France – as competitors of the US for international trade and diplomatic influence. It was no accident that the ruler of Austria, which currently chairs the EU, was the first to be invited for a summit (Riyadh, March 18). The summit was given prominence in the Saudi media, amid claims that it addressed urgent political and economic issues. The Iranian nuclear issue inevitably appeared on the agenda, as did the Palestinian-Israeli war, the US-Iraq war and the "international war on terrorism". The media also stressed that the Saudi side is working hard to persuade the EU to resist the anti-Islamic campaigns in European countries.
Interestingly, only ten days earlier the US government had accused the Saudis of failing to confront terrorists and to cut funding to Islamic groups. Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary in the Treasury's office for dealing with terrorist financing, said that Saudi Arabia had taken positive steps but needed to "do more" (which is a standard mantra) on counter-terrorist financing. But the Americans know that the royal family (a loyal and dependable ally of theirs) are not kept in office by the military (unlike Mubarak), and that they use the kingdom's oil-wealth to bribe both their supporters and their critics. The US government's public criticism is certainly, therefore, not designed to help anyone to remove the Saudi rulers.
It certainly helps the US to project the Saudis as not so pro-US as they are widely believed to be, but not to the extent of supporting any plan to enable the Saudis to distance themselves from the US more creditably.