Arab lead­ers meet to unify ranks with eye on Iran, Jerusalem

The Sault Star - - WORLD NEWS - AYA BATRAWY

DHAHRAN, Saudi Ara­bia — Saudi Ara­bia used its perch as host of an an­nual gath­er­ing of Arab lead­ers on Sun­day to push for a uni­fied stance against ri­val Iran as the re­gional pow­er­houses vie for the up­per hand in wars in Syria and Ye­men.

Saudi King Sal­man told lead­ers from across the 22-mem­ber Arab League that Iran was to blame for in­sta­bil­ity and med­dling in the re­gion. He said Ye­meni rebel Houthis, backed by Iran, had fired 116 mis­siles at the king­dom since Saudi Ara­bia went to war in Ye­men three years ago to try and roll back Houthi gains there.

The sum­mit took place in the oil­rich east­ern Saudi city of Dhahran, a lo­ca­tion that may have been se­lected by the king­dom to avoid cross-border Houthi missile strikes that have tar­geted the cap­i­tal, Riyadh, and south­ern border cities.

While locked in proxy con­flicts in Ye­men and Syria, Saudi Ara­bia and Iran also back op­pos­ing groups in Le­banon, Bahrain and Iraq.

The sum­mit this year takes place af­ter the U.S., Bri­tain and France launched dozens of strikes early Satur­day at sites they said were linked to Syr­ian chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram. Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and his close ally, Rus­sia, have de­nied gov­ern­ment forces ever used such weapons.

Arab League Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said As­sad’s gov­ern­ment and “in­ter­na­tional players try­ing to achieve their own strate­gic po­lit­i­cal goals” bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the col­lapse of that nation.

“Re­gional in­ter­fer­ence in Arab af­fairs has reached an un­prece­dented de­gree. And first of these is the Ira­nian in­ter­fer­ence, the aim of which is not for the well-be­ing of the Arabs or their in­ter­ests,” he said.

The Saudi monarch made no ref­er­ence to Syria in his re­marks be­fore Arab lead­ers amid di­vi­sions within the re­gion-wide body over sup­port for the U.S.-led airstrikes on Syria. The king­dom, as well as Bahrain and Qatar, have is­sued state­ments back­ing Satur­day’s strikes on mil­i­tary tar­gets in Syria. More wary of the widen­ing con­flict are coun­tries like Egypt, Iraq and Le­banon.

As­sad was not in­vited to the sum­mit, though most heads of state from across the Mid­dle East and North Africa at­tended the Arab League meet­ing, in­clud­ing Su­danese Pres­i­dent Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court for al­leged war crimes in Dar­fur.

Saudi ten­sions with neigh­bour­ing Qatar were also on dis­play at the sum­mit. Qatar’s emir was not in at­ten­dance, in­stead dis­patch­ing his coun­try’s Arab League rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the meet­ing. While the Qatari flag was erected along­side other mem­ber-state flags on the streets of Dhahran, the coun­try’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive did not ap­pear in a group photo of the top del­e­gates in at­ten­dance.

Ten­sions erupted nearly a year ago when Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Bahrain and Egypt sev­ered ties with Qatar and im­posed a de facto block­ade on the small Gulf state. The four ac­cuse Qatar of spon­sor­ing ter­ror­ism be­cause of its sup­port for Is­lamist op­po­si­tion groups in the re­gion and its warm relations with Iran. Qatar de­nies the al­le­ga­tions and says the moves at­tempt to un­der­mine its sovereignty.

The stand­off with Qatar, how­ever, did not fea­ture in sum­mit de­lib­er­a­tions.

In­stead, Arab heads of state stressed unity and un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for Pales­tini­ans. King Sal­man re­it­er­ated Saudi Ara­bia’s re­jec­tion of the U.S. de­ci­sion to move its em­bassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to rec­og­nize Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of Israel.

AMR NA­BIL/AP PHOTO

Bill­boards with pho­tos of Saudi King Sal­man and Ara­bic that reads, “wel­come” line the road to the con­ven­tion cen­tre where Arab lead­ers are meet­ing for an Arab sum­mit meet­ing in Dhahran, Saudi Ara­bia, on Sun­day. The sum­mit opened in the east­ern Saudi city of Dhahran as ten­sions with

Iran and wars in Syria and Ye­men threaten sta­bil­ity across the re­gion. Sal­man told lead­ers from across the 22-mem­ber Arab League that Iran was to blame for in­sta­bil­ity and med­dling in the re­gion.

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