February 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 485

Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran Part I – Deepening Crisis in Saudi-Syrian Relations

February 24, 2009 | By C. Jacob*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 485


The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria – whose primary cause is the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which Saudi Arabia perceives as a threat – have recently escalated. The conflict is reflected mainly in an intensive media campaign waged by Syria and its supporters against Saudi Arabia and its allies. As part of this campaign, the Syrian media has accused Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal faction (part of the March 14 Forces) of being behind the September 27, 2008 bombing in Damascus, of promoting U.S goals, and of becoming friendly with Israel. In particular, Saudi Arabia was lambasted for promoting the Arab Peace Initiative "in order to please Israel and the U.S. at the expense of the Muslims and Arabs," and for initiating the recent Interfaith Dialogue Conference in New York, which was characterized as an attempt to normalize relations with Israel while disregarding the Palestinian plight and undercutting the efforts of the resistance.

In response to the criticism, the Saudi media stated that it is Syria and its allies that are promoting terrorism and extremism, striving to perpetuate the Arab-Israeli conflict, and opposing the formation of an alliance of moderate Arab countries that can bring peace to the region. An article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat also criticized the hypocrisy of Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, who accuse Saudi Arabia of normalization with Israel, while they themselves take steps towards normalization whenever it serves their interests.

The reciprocal Syrian-Saudi attacks have reached the level of provocations and personal insults. A Syrian website maligned the character of the Saudi king by publishing an offensive image depicting him as a camel, and also accused him of drinking wine, while the Saudi TV channel Al-Arabiya aired a report on improvements in prostitution services in Syria.

Following are excerpts from the articles and statements:

Syrian Media: Saudi Arabia Promoting Arab-Israeli Normalization, Alliance between Israel and So-Called "Moderate Arab States"

An editorial in the Syrian daily Al-Watan stated: "Whoever follows [the Interfaith Dialogue] conference can see that it is part of an American plan aimed at achieving the following goals: First, the goal of achieving normalization between Israel and the Arabs before Israel has returned the occupied Arab territories in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, and before the Palestinians have secured the right to return to the land and homes from which they were expelled. This [goal] was clearly evident in the public sessions in which Arab leaders could be seen listening to a speech by [Israeli President] Shimon Peres, sitting with him in the same [assembly] hall, or even sitting right next to him in the dining hall – [all] in order to accustom Arab public opinion to [the idea of] normalizing [relations] with the leader of the Zionist enemies, to inculcate and legitimize [this notion].

"The second goal [of the conference] is to form an alliance between Israel and the so-called 'moderate Arab states,' which will confront the forces of resistance, minimize [the impact] of their victories, and [ultimately] crush them. This was clearly reflected in the call [made at the conference] to form an alliance under the banner of 'war on extremism and terror.'

"The third goal was to improve the image of Israel and the U.S. by presenting them as supporters of the call for dialogue and tolerance...

"This proves that the [Interfaith Dialogue] conference is [nothing but] a great deception and distortion of the facts. It is presented as interfaith dialogue, but the faiths have nothing to do with it, with its organizers, or with its participants."[1]

Website Associated with Syrian Regime: "The Villainous Saudis [Are] Spreading Takfir "

Columnist Khadher 'Awarka wrote an especially harsh article on, which is affiliated with the Syrian regime: "In practice, the Saudi [Peace] Initiative rests entirely on the unjust policy of the American administration. If America is hostile to Iran, Saudi Arabia precedes it by declaring a cold war on Iran [even before the U.S. has done so]. If the Americans place the Palestinians under siege, the Saudi regime [begins to] boycott them [even] before the rest of the world does... When the U.S. was pleased with Yasser Arafat, the Saudi king welcomed him, and when the U.S. was angry at him, no senior Saudi official would spare him a kind word or a phone call...

"Saudi Arabia armed, funded, and incited Al-Zarqawi's [Al-Qaeda] in Iraq under the pretext of defending the Sunnis against the Shi'ites, [while in reality] it only wanted a toehold in that country... In Palestine, it is fighting anyone associated with the resistance or its members, and in Lebanon and Syria, it is funding the terrorists who engage in takfir [i.e. accusing others of heresy], and at the same time funding the Israeli espionage networks...

"Therefore, [I say to] the people of Palestine, and to [all] Arabs and Muslims: beware of the deception of the kings of heresy [i.e. the Saudi kings] and chief collaborators with the Imperialist Satan [i.e. the U.S.]...

"Look at the role played by the villainous Saudis in spreading takfir in Egypt, Morocco, and America. [Look at] the assistance they have extended to the Israeli gangs, [whom they provided with] agents and security [aid] so they could hunt down the leaders of the resistance in Palestine. Look at the thousands of media personnel they fund in the East and West, who wave the Saudi sword and brainwash the world in favor of Israel...[2]

Champress Accuses Saudi King of Drinking Wine

Champress also published a photo from the recent G-20 Summit, in which Saudi King 'Abdallah and U.S. President George Bush are seen raising their glasses in a toast. The website commented: "This photo is an accurate indication of 'Abdullah's piety as a Muslim. [It shows] George Bush and King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz holding up glasses of wine. The hired pens of the People's Democratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who are well briefed for occasions like this, naturally claim that the king's glass was filled with water from the Zamzam [a sacred well in Mecca] – and we believe this, I swear we do. But what was Bush drinking? Cheers, O King of Saudi Arabia..."[3]

Khadher 'Awarka wrote: "King 'Abdallah is not [really] the king of Saudi Arabia. He does not rule [the country], because since youth he has had a weak personality, and this is doubly true today, when he is surrounded by the princes of sanctimoniousness, deception, and falsehood... 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz has never known how to finish a letter, and has never read a book – not even the Koran. Despite this, the people and the media know him as a great reader who encourages his subjects to read, even though he does not [even] read the daily newspapers and suffers from a basic inability to concentrate... 'Abdallah has no control over his surroundings, because, at the age of 84, he has diabetes, hypertension, and liver problems, and he occasionally suddenly passes out for several hours. Like all foolish and ignorant tyrants, he does not rule independently, but is only a figurehead for a powerful group that rules in his name..."[4]

Syrian Daily: King 'Abdallah Feasts with "One Who Starves the Palestinians in Gaza"

Suheir Muhammad, columnist for the Syrian daily Al-Watan, criticized the Saudi king for including an Israeli representative at the Interfaith Dialogue conference: "The conference, which is supposed to be a gathering of people who call for tolerance, friendship and acceptance of the other, has welcomed the leader of the greatest terror organization [in the world], which is intolerant of all religions. Shimon Peres, president of the Zionist entity, sat at the dinner table with the Saudi king, who is supposed to care for the affairs of Islam and the Muslims. They had dinner against [the backdrop of] the lights of New York, home of AIPAC, the greatest pro-Israel organization, while the [Saudi] king knows that his fellow dinner guest [Peres] is starving 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza... [Peres was responsible] for the Qana massacre, and he is the criminal and murderer who is trying to purge Jerusalem [of Arabs], to destroy the Palestinians' homes, and to drive them out. Before coming to the conference and sitting down with the Saudi king, he soaked his hands in the blood of children in Gaza. What can this criminal have to say at an interfaith conference?"[5]

Hizbullah: Including Israel in the Interfaith Dialogue Conference Means Relinquishing the Right of Return

Nawaf Al-Moussawi, head of Hizbullah's foreign relations bureau, said: "We believe in pluralism and in dialogue among the faiths, but not at the expense of national and political rights, and not [when the dialogue] is meant to strengthen criminals who are [ostensibly] representing their faith, or to place the oppressor and oppressed on an equal footing under the pretext of interfaith dialogue.

"I am speaking of the crime that was perpetrated again when the president of the Zionist entity, Shimon Peres, was invited to attend the so-called interfaith dialogue in New York… – [for the meaning of this] is that there can be no place without Jews in the land they call 'Israel,' and that [even] the Palestinians living in the 1948 territories [i.e. the Israeli Arabs] cannot remain in the State of Israel. Inviting Shimon Peres to the New York conference is an implied admission that Israel is the land of the Jewish people – and [therefore it is tantamount to] relinquishing of the right of return...

"The [notion] of eliminating the State of Israel is not just some extremist slogan, but a [real] goal that we are constantly striving to achieve. It is not a call to annihilate the [Jewish] faith or the people [of Israel], but to remove the racist regime and put an end to the ceaseless aggression, which has not stopped since the Zionist movement launched its enterprise and [began] its activity in Palestine and in the world."[6]

Moussawi also called the Interfaith Dialogue conference a "dubious back channel [aimed at] forcing [the Arabs] to normalize relations with Israel and thus integrate it into the fabric of the region." Peres, he added, "perpetrated the [Qana] massacre at the U.N. headquarters [in Lebanon], which cost the lives of over 100 Lebanese citizens, most of them women, children and elderly people. Why does the U.N. let this arch-murderer, who perpetrated a massacre in one of its [compounds] in South Lebanon, give a speech at an interfaith conference?"[7]

Lebanese Cleric: The Arabs Are Buying the Deceptive Talk about the Renewal of the Arab Peace Initiative

Lebanese Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah stated: "Zionist Arab leaders [i.e. Saudi leaders] are feasting at the U.N.-sponsored interfaith conference in New York. The food [they eat] is seasoned with the blood, affliction, and wounds of the Palestinians …

"The Arabs who dine with the criminal Peres are doing nothing to eradicate the injustice, oppression, occupation, and siege on the Palestinian people. However, they are listening attentively to the U.S. secretary of state's sanctimonious and deceptive talk about the advent of peace. This, because the Zionist leaders have intimated that the [Saudi] Arab Peace Initiative might be put back on the table, and after the international Quartet suggested freezing the [Israeli] settlements rather than dismantling them, for fear of annoying Israel – even though this comes at the expense of the Arabs and Muslims."[8]

Saudi Reaction

It Is Our Rivals Who Blow Up Women and Children in Streets and Marketplaces

In response to the attacks on Saudi Arabia, the Saudi press counterattacked. Columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh 'Adel bin Zaid Al-Tarifi wrote: "There are hostile attitudes in the region which are usually manifested in intensive media attacks on Saudi Arabia. In the last few months, any Saudi initiative or position has been [immediately] labeled as unspeakably horrid. Articles and reports in the papers of the Lebanese opposition, in the government press of Iran, Syria, and Gaza, and in the recruited Arab papers in London and Paris have brimmed with curses and invective against Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese papers, for example, slammed the interfaith conference, accusing Saudi Arabia of striving to normalize [relations] with the Israelis...

"The main thing that bothers many in the Arab media is that Saudi Arabia represents the moderate Arab model that should be emulated by the rest of the [Arab] world. It irks them that Saudi Arabia – its leadership and its people – are seen by the world in a positive light. The most blatant example of the false [allegations against Saudi Arabia] is the claim that appeared in one of those recruited papers – namely, that we, the Saudi writers, are implementing a Saudi plan aimed at 'eliminating the Palestinian problem and eradicating it from the Arab consciousness as the core of the conflict between the Muslims and Israel.' The same writer added that the Saudi policy was akin to that of [the late Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat – that is, aimed at normalizing relations with the enemy...

"We Saudis are not angels, and we have made many mistakes. There are negative aspects to our social and religious culture. Our institutions suffer from [an excess of] bureaucracy and from many other problems. Yet we are still better off than those who are attacking us and waging an incitement campaign against us on every cultural, economic, and humanitarian front...

"We will ruthlessly oppose those who attack us, for it is they who should be ashamed. It is they who conspire to assassinate [leaders], and to blow up women and children in the streets and marketplaces of Baghdad and Beirut. It is they who want the conflicts to go on forever, so that the peoples of the region will [forever be trapped] in a victim mentality, while [the regimes] corruptly [do as they please] with the international aid funds..."[9]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas Condemn Saudi Arabia for Normalization with Israel – But They Themselves Actually Want It

In an article titled "They Are all Pro-Normalization!" Tareq Al-Homayed, editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, criticized the hypocrisy of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. He wrote: "Iran has an Arab lobby, [represented, for example,] by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Fahmi Huwaidi, who characterized the interfaith dialogue as 'normalization' and defended [the positions of] Hamas, Iran and Syria. In a similar vein, the Iranian press demanded that the Iranian leadership take a firm diplomatic stance against anyone who participated in the interfaith dialogue.

"But if, according to the Iranian definition, [interfaith dialogue] is normalization, then everyone is [actually] in favor of normalization... Where were all those [who complain about normalization] when Dr. Ahmad Yousef, political advisor to [Hamas leader in Gaza] Isma'il Haniya, published articles in the Israeli press or appeared on [Israeli] TV? Where were they when [Hamas] agreed to a hudna with Israel?...

"And another funny thing: Iran and Hizbullah raised a stink about the interfaith dialogue, but the New York [dialogue] conference was actually attended by an Iranian representative who even delivered a speech like all other delegations! Where were [all those complainers] when Buthayna Sha'ban, advisor to [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad, said a few days ago that the indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel had gotten off to a good start and contained elements of success?"[10]

Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal faction head Sa'd Al-Hariri made similar arguments, defending Saudi Arabia and the interfaith dialogue: "Sadly, we have heard politicians and people in the media attack the interfaith dialogue and characterize it as an attempt to normalize [relations] with Israel. Yet [these people] said not a word about the recent Middle East conference in France, where Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad sat beside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This was not characterized as an attempt at normalization. When Iranian President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad invited Jewish rabbis to visit Tehran a few years ago, and met with them, [this too was not seen as normalization].

"The current U.N. [conference], organized by King 'Abdallah, is a genuine interfaith dialogue [conference], and everyone should be proud of it – for it separates religion from politics and puts an end to the accusations that [link] Islam to terrorism..."[11]

*C. Jacob is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] Al-Watan (Syria), November 18, 2008.

[2], November 17, 2008.

[3], November 16, 2008.

[4], November 17, 2008.

[5] Al-Watan (Syria), November 16, 2008.

[6], November 15, 2008.

[7], November 10, 2008.

[8], November 14, 2008.

[9] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 19, 2008.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 22, 2008.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 13, 2008.

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