January 25, 2009 7:00 pm

Saudi warning

Anyone with a stake in the stability of the wider Middle East should take very seriously the warning set forth in the Financial Times last Friday by Prince Turki al-Faisal.

Prince Turki, a man who expresses himself with care and moderation, was recently the Saudi ambassador to the UK and the US and, before that, the long-serving chief of Saudi intelligence. He and his brother, foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, have represented the pro-US kingdom to the world for well over three decades. They are also part of the reforming wing of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy and allies of King Abdullah.

Prince Turki, citing equally forthright remarks by King Abdullah and Prince Saud, is now telling the new administration of Barack Obama it can either change course radically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or forfeit the US “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The US, he warns, risks losing its leadership role in the Middle East.

The Bush administration has not only left “a sickening legacy in the region”, he says, but “contributed to the slaughter of innocents”. Mr Obama should embrace the 2002 peace plan of King Abdullah, offering full Arab recognition of Israel for full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land and the creation of a Palestinian state, with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital.

Prince Turki reveals that Iran last week called on Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel. “So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls,” he said, but “eventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel”. Strong stuff.

Like other Sunni regimes such as Egypt and Jordan, the Saudis have come under popular pressure to respond to Israel’s assault on Gaza. They fear being seen as part of a US-Israeli front against Shia Iran and its allies, including Hamas.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the anger felt by Arab leaders at the Israeli army’s killing of Palestinian civilians – and more than 400 children – in Gaza.

The Saudis have emitted a crescendo of warnings, as Arab leaders over the past decade have lost faith in American leadership and signalled they may make their own arrangements: hostile to Israel, in detente with Iran, and turning their backs on the US – unless it can restrain its Israeli ally. Mr Obama’s naming of George Mitchell, the former senator who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East, shows he is thinking seriously about the region. What the Saudis are telling the new US president is that he has only limited time to act.

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