Michael Slackman writes that U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have seen their influence decline in the region as Syria and Iran have increased their power, even in the midst of political unrest in Iran and a Syrian “economic and water crisis.” Syrian and Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah allows them to project power by influencing the internal affairs of Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and Egypt acknowledge all this; they admit that they are no longer masters of their universe. What they do not agree upon is how to respond.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has decided that Arab unity is the only way to re-establish the kingdom’s role and to blunt Iran’s growing influence. The king has begun a diplomatic drive to smooth relations with two Arab leaders who have insulted and admonished him in the past, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and, more recently, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Egyptian officials say they wish the king well but have declined to participate in his reconciliation initiative because they think it will fail as long as Syria determines that the advantages of playing the spoiler outweigh the gains of pushing for peace.
“If there is no peace, then all those who bet against peace are winning,” said an Egyptian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid increasing tensions with the United States or Saudi Arabia. “And all those who act and bet there will be peace are losing, like us. We are losing because we are putting this bet.”
The great promise of President Obama’s June speech in Cairo, officials and political commentators said, was severely damaged when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her recent trip to the Middle East, praised as “unprecedented” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to slow the building of settlements. That left the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Egypt — the two regional American allies most committed to negotiating with Israel — exposed, embarrassed and weakened, political analysts and government officials said.
“Egypt’s role is receding regionally, and its cards are limited,” said Emad Gad, an expert in international relations at the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Their main card, which is reconciliation and peace, is receding.”