Saudi Speech Signals Shift on Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Frustration over the escalating death toll and suffering in Syria is beginning to show. Fed up with what some believe to be delay tactics, the Saudi Arabian delegation withdrew from a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” conference held in Tunis last week. Even more remarkable was the speech delivered by the Saudi foreign minister, who accused other participants of dragging their feet and called for arming the opposition in Syria.

As Al Hayat’s Jameel Theyabi notes, “The Syria’s Friends conference in Tunisia was attended by around 79 states and organizations, but the Saudi presence was noticeable at the level of its positions that came in rejection of the pragmatism of some, and the evasion and fears of others…. The speech delivered by Prince Saud al-Faisal showed that his country’s patience was running out, considering that this speech conveyed the reality of the Syrian situation. This is especially due to the fact that it considered that Bashar al-Assad’s regime lost legitimacy and has become similar to an occupation authority killing the people, and that there was no way out of the crisis except through the transition of power voluntarily or by force.”

The Iranian reaction and condemnation of the Saudi position was swift. According to a Cham Press report, “Foreign and Expatriates Ministry Spokesman, Dr. Jihad Maqdisi, on Wednesday described the Qatari and Saudi calls for arming the Syrian opposition as hostile to Syria, placing on those who announce such calls the political responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria. ‘The Syrian response to such calls was reserved. We would like the brothers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia or whomsoever to contribute to getting the opposition figures to act rationally and come to the dialogue table, and not to arming the opposition and shedding the Syrian blood, for which they are fully responsible as they are consciously shedding it,’ Maqdisi told a press conference at the Ministry’s headquarters.”

But others are not sure the Saudi message constituted a case of interference. In an op-ed for the Saudi Arab News, Tariq Al-Homayed wonders whether “Saudi Arabia [is] really dictating its conditions to the tyrant of Damascus, and stipulating specific steps? Is the Kingdom really adopting this crucial position now, without ever trying to exert peaceful efforts upon Assad in the past?…The Saudi response to Assad was as follows: We don’t want to do anything at all, the Syrian problem lies within Syria, and within your hands specifically. All we ask is that you stop the killings. Do not kill. Hence the advice we give you is simply: Go out and address the Syrians, make your speech brief, no more than 10 minutes, and give them more than they are asking for. Grant them more than the demands they have come out to protest for, and then you will have saved Syria and answered your people….Is it Saudi Arabia that is hostile toward Assad? Of course not, Assad is his own enemy, just as he is the enemy of the Syrians.”

The speech did gain many supporters in the region, however. Gulf News’ Khalaf Al Habtoor for example confesses his “hero is the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal who backs arming of Syrian opposition fighters and is apparently as sick of ineffective talk as I am. He walked out of the Tunisia meet, saying ‘Is it justice to offer aid and leave the Syrians to the killing machine?’…Were an all-Arab army to enter Syria with Arab League support, it would be welcomed by the majority of Syrians whose voices would soon drown-out objections from Russia and China. This is our moment. I can only hope that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and any Arab state which is a true friend to Syria will grasp it. Al Assad has closed his ears to Arab appeals and proposals but even someone as arrogant as he is cannot ignore our collective wrath.”

Also, the clear language used by the Saudi foreign minister has also led some to conclude that Saudi-Syrian relations are over. As Asharq Alawsat’s  Hussein Shobokshi observes, “Saudi diplomacy had always adopted the option of calmly and quietly working within the corridors of power and behind closed doors to achieve its objectives. So what has happened now? What is the reason for Saudi Arabia’s new position in this regard? …Bashar al-Assad failed to learn a lesson from the Saudi position, which has opened it to unprecedented and mounting pressure. …Everybody has finally had enough and run out of diplomatic patience with al-Assad and his regime. Indeed the statement made by Saudi Foreign Minister was sufficient to explain Riyadh’s new position: namely that the al-Assad regime must go, whether voluntarily or by force.”

There are some, like Asharq Alawsat’s Abdullah Al-Otaibi, who rightly note that the latest Saudi position on Syria is consistent with long-standing Saudi policy: “anyone who has monitored recent Saudi stances, especially King Abdullah’s statements and policies, would easily deduce that Saudi Arabia, together with the Gulf states, have always maintained a unified position towards Syria in the Arab League and, later on, in the Security Council….King Abdullah’s stance cannot be considered out of the ordinary or away from customarily calm Saudi diplomacy, for no one should remain silent about the grave situation in Syria; enough is enough.”

Finally, it has become clear to everyone that, despite all the best intentions and efforts by others in the region, the ultimate solution of the situation in Syria will come from inside. Unfortunately, as Bassel Oudat suggests on the pages of Al Ahram, “Although nearly a year has passed since the start of the popular uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad…the country’s opposition has thus far been unable to come up with a roadmap for Syria after Al-Assad or to present itself as a viable alternative to the incumbent regime. Continued divisions within the opposition have given the Syrian regime room to maneuver, obstructed Arab and international efforts to put pressure on the regime, and even extended the duration of the Syrian crisis. They may have become a threat to the success of the Syrian uprising, even facilitating efforts to undermine it, possibly through military action.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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