King Abdullah opened an emergency session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia today to address ongoing instability in the Middle East. Syria is high on their list of priorities, with other member states already voting to suspend its membership of the OIC until Bashar al-Assad gives up power.
The OIC is a famously ineffectual institution but there is significant posturing taking place behind the scenes. Saudi Arabia had only hosted the OIC once since its inception in 1969 until King Abdullah took power in 2005. Since then, at his request, it has hosted it a further two times.
This chimes with Abdullah’s plans to project himself as the region’s leading statesman, particularly now that all his competitor grotesques are gone. Saddam, Mubarak and Gaddafi are no more, Bashar is wavering, and Ahmadinejad is isolated. Abdullah senses his moment to expand the Saudi sphere of influence within the region.
What makes this conference significant is the broader context in which Abdullah convened it. Gulf countries are almost uniformly backing the Syrian opposition against Assad. Other Sunni states in North Africa and the Levant also want him to go, but Abdullah resisted the temptation to make his OIC conference an exclusively Sunni club. Instead, he extended a personal invitation to Ahmadinejad, asking him to represent Iranian – and, by extension, Shia – interests.
This is a dextrous move, bolstering Abdullah’s claims to responsible statesmanship while hemming in his most bitter rival. Ahmadinejad is hopelessly outvoted at the OIC but could hardly be seen to reject a personal invitation from the Saudi monarch. Thus, within hours of the conference opening, Abdullah suspended Syria from the OIC in full view of its only Muslim backer.
The timing and location of the conference is also invested with significance. Abdullah has placed it in Makkah, home to Islam’s most holy site, and during Ramadan, the most holy month in the Muslim calendar. Abdullah is using this backdrop to make an emphatic point; not only is he the Arab world’s leading statesman, but also custodian of its religious sanctuaries.
This is Abdullah’s triumph. Through the guise of multilateralism, he has paved the way for Saudi Arabia’s agenda in the Middle East. Many OIC countries already support the broad outline of his agenda – bringing down Assad, curbing the rise of Brotherhood power, and checking Shia influence. That he should have done it while effectively neutralising his main political opponent reveals how Saudi Arabia is emerging as the early victor of the Arab Spring.