For Saudi Arabia, religion holds the key

THE MIDDLE EAST AFTER RABIN Michael Sheridan, in the first of a series on Arab reaction to Yitzhak Rabin's killing, finds just how deep is the divide between Israel and the Muslim world
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Jeddah - There was, of course, just one lead story on the front pages of most Saudi Arabian newspapers yesterday.

King Fahd, passing the late summer in this sweltering city on the Red Sea, has hailed the role of the industrial sector in boosting development and commended the efforts of the petrochemical and refining industries.

But next to the Saudi monarch's lengthy and optimistic pronouncements, readers could digest news-agency accounts of the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

The satellite dishes that blossom on balconies and rooftops across Saudi cities allowed many of the kingdom's 12 million citizens to watch the sad ceremonials in Jerusalem and, indeed, to witness the attendance not only of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein, but also of emissaries from Saudi Arabia's Gulf neighbours, Oman and Qatar.

The Saudi newspapers discreetly made no mention of the Omani and Qatari presence, no doubt judging it a little too sensitive for readers who abhor Israel as a Zionist abomination. The symbolic barriers may slowly be coming down across the Middle East. But in Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest Arab country, with 25 per cent of the world's oil reserves, it is starkly evident how deep are the wells of distrust and how fundamental the divide between Israel and the Muslim world.

Yesterday morning, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, that the Kingdom would continue its quiet efforts behind the scenes to encourage Arab countries to pursue the peace process. Prince Saud believes Rabin's untimely death may offer Syria and Israel an opportunity to break the deadlock in talks over the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia fears that without a rapid move to reinvigorate the negotiations, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad may let the moment pass. No doubt Saudi diplomacy and funds will now be applied to the arts of persuasion in Damascus.

But, just like President Assad, Saudi Arabia itself has no intention of making the public gestures of reconciliation to which leaders such as King Hussein have become accustomed. Leading members of the royal family have angrily, if privately, rebuffed as "naive" American entreaties to do so.

There is a simple self-preserving reason for their stance. If the Palestinian dispute with Israel is essentially about the division of land, the Saudi aversion to Zionism springs from religion.

In 1986 King Fahd decided to relinquish the title of "His Majesty" and to adopt instead the honorific of "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," thereby reiterating in every official document and deed his family's rule over the sacred shrines of Mecca and Medina. These religious obligations help to legitimise the absolute monarchy and grant Saudi Arabia a paramount status among the Islamic nations.

It is Jewish control over the Muslim holy places of Jerusalem - the Temple Mount (the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims) and the Aqsa Mosque - which embitters the zealous and goads the monarchy to a position of resolute isolation from direct contacts with the Israelis. Thus, while Yasser Arafat can take small comfort from the acquisition of Palestinian territory, the Saudi monarchy can see no benefit to Muslims until the issue of Jerusalem comes under discussion in the "Permanent Status negotiations," due to start in May next year but likely to be delayed.

"Saudi Arabia made no comment on the death of Rabin and I would not expect them to," said a diplomat in Jeddah. "They don't like to talk about it," observed a local newspaperman. "It is all right for Saudis to see it all on television so long as the kingdom is not brought in to the picture."

King Fahd and the dynastic system face criticism from Islamist critics, who deride the monarchy as corrupt, condemn its political proximity to the Western powers and demand its unflinching adherence to the Sharia religious law. The Saudi government has responded by rounding up and arresting radical clergymen.

But it has simultaneously established a consultative council to mitigate discontent among the merchant class, which predominates in Jeddah, and endowed ever more mosques to satisfy the Wahhabi fundamentalists who hold sway in the desert capital of Riyadh.

As an example to all concerned, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the Interior Minister, has overseen an intimidating number of executions by beheading in the last year.

The sensitive interplay in Saudi society between the monarchy, the Islamic ulema, or clergy, and popular opinion provides perhaps the textbook example of how the Arab-Israeli conflict still profoundly affects the whole region.

"The problems were not solved with Arafat's agreement," said a Saudi official yesterday. "Perhaps they are just beginning."