What, no kiss? On the second date? Photo: al-Hayat
Very few media outlets in the US seem to have noticed, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmednejad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah were back together again the other day on the occasion of the Hajj. Ahmednejad's surprising appearance at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in early December had set off something of a frenzy of media discussion about whether it meant a possible reconciliation between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors. A range of commentators (both officials and pundits) had rushed to pour cold water on those hopes/fears, emphasizing lack of agreement on issues over the sheer fact of the public engagement. Shortly after the Iranian President's visit to Doha, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates led a significant American delegation to an Arab security meeting in Bahrain to rally the Gulf Arabs against the Iranian threat and to re-energize a collective strategy of containment. This second public meeting - reportedly at the Saudi King's initiative - suggests that the Gulf Arab approach to Iran really is shifting despite these American efforts. Whatever the private fears of Iran by Gulf leaders and elites (which by all accounts, including my own conversations, are quite real), this very recent Gulf Arab trend from containment towards engagement of Iran seems real. Worth paying close attention to, particularly given how such a rapprochement could rebound in places like Iraq and Lebanon - and, of course, Washington. It's interesting, by the way, that the Ahmednejad-Abdullah meeting was covered prominently by al-Hayat but largely ignored by al-Sharq al-Awsat (both major Arab papers owned by Saudi princes) - suggesting at least the possibility of some internal conflict between members of the royal family on the issue.
It's also worth noting that this wasn't just an (extraordinary) diplomatic get-together. Ahmedjnejad's invitation to the religious occasion comes in the context of the deep anti-Shia sentiment which runs through much of the Saudi religious establishment (and the oft-heated Sunni-Shia political issues in Saudi Arabia itself). That picture above, which ran in al-Quds al-Arabi, is rather eye-catching. It has recently struck me that this year we're seeing nothing comparable to the Sunni-Shia hysteria which swept through the Arab world around this time last year (after Saddam's execution). So the changes which seem to be taking place at the level of high politics (i.e. Ahmednejad's visits to the GCC meeting and to Saudi Arabia) are being mirrored at the public cultural level too.
To be updated later when I have the chance to look over the Arabic press for commentary... and, in other news, I'm still frightfully busy.