Saudi Arabia’s King Salman today slammed Iran’s “blatant interference” in regional affairs and criticised the US over Jerusalem as Arab leaders met in the kingdom for an annual gathering. The 82-year-old monarch dubbed the Arab League meeting the “Jerusalem summit” as he took aim at Washington’s decision to transfer its embassy in Israel to the holy city. Seventeen heads of state from across the Arab world — minus Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — gathered in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran for the 29th Arab League summit, which this year comes as world powers face off over Syria and tensions rise between Riyadh and Tehran. The meeting opened only 24 hours after a barrage of strikes launched by the United States, Britain and France hit targets they said were linked to chemical weapons development in Syria, which was suspended from the league seven years ago.
But King Salman avoided any mention of Syria in his address, as a seat marked “Syrian Arab Republic” sat empty in the hall. Instead the king focused on rivalries with long-time foe Iran — only 160 kilometres (100 miles) across the Gulf from Dhahran. “We renew our strong condemnation of Iran’s terrorist acts in the Arab region and reject its blatant interference in the affairs of Arab countries,” the king said. And despite being a stalwart ally of the United States, the ruler also criticised US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and shift the US embassy there.
“We reiterate our rejection of the US decision on Jerusalem,” Salman said. “East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Palestinian territories.” The king said he had named this year’s meeting “the Jerusalem summit so that the entire world knows Palestine and its people remain at the heart of Arab concerns”. Arab ministers at a preliminary meeting in Riyadh on Thursday focused heavily on blocking the embassy move, unanimously condemning Trump’s decision. King Salman on Sunday announced a $150 million donation for the maintenance of Islamic heritage in East Jerusalem.
Earlier this month, the monarch reiterated the kingdom’s “steadfast stance on the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital”. His comments came just days after his son, powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, told reporters during a US tour that Israel also had a “right” to its own state.
The remark suggested increasing rapprochement with Israel, which like Riyadh, sees Tehran as its arch rival. Saudi Arabia is pushing for a tough, unified stance against Iran at the annual gathering of the 22-member Arab League. The two regional titans back opposing sides in a range of hotspots across the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria and in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour Yemen.
Iran is backing Shiite Huthi rebels that Riyadh opposes in Yemen and on Sunday Salman praised “the UN Security Council’s statement denouncing the Iranian-made ballistic missile fire on Saudi cities.” Last month the Security Council issued a statement condemning Huthi missile attacks on Saudi, but did not name Iran. In February, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have expressed concern over Iran’s failure to block supplies of missiles to Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
The summit also comes with Saudi Arabia and Qatar locked in a months-long diplomatic standoff, with Riyadh accusing Doha of supporting Islamist extremists and being too close to Iran. Tensions have eased slightly in recent months but Qatar still only sent its representative to the Arab League to the Dhahran summit.
Among the leaders in attendance was Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who walked the red carpet and was greeted by King Salman. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for five counts of crimes against humanity, three counts of genocide and two counts of war crimes. Summits of the Arab League, established in 1945, rarely result in action. The last time the bloc made a concrete move was in 2011, when it suspended Syria’s membership over the Assad regime’s role in the war.
Syria’s war, the most complex of the region’s conflicts, is the main point of contention pitting Riyadh and its allies, who mainly back Sunni rebels, against regime backer Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Gulf Arab states have made massive donations to Syria but have not officially offered asylum to Syrians.