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Owls Gather at Annapolis Print E-mail

By Youssef Ibrahim
November 26, 2007

 

Like the menacing crows in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "The Birds," participants are gathering at Annapolis for the first Middle East mega-conference in 16 years.

After much coyness, it seems that everyone is coming: the princes of corruption, assorted Jihadists and nincompoops, Syrian murderers, hapless Israelis, superfluous Egyptians, and a coterie of Europeans and hangers-on-all gathered by Secretary of State Rice, whose record of nonexistent accomplishments in almost eight years as national security advisor and head of the State Department shines brightly.

But looming above all at Annapolis this week will be the Saudi royal family and its representative, "Prince" Saud al-Faisal, whose cousins, uncles, and many relatives are now under investigation in America and the European Union for accepting tens of billions of dollars in bribes over the past three decades under the guise of military contracts to buy toys from the West. The pious leaders of so-called moderate Islam, it turns out, have used the uniquely talented friend of President Bush, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to milk Western weapons makers of billions of dollars — money destined for the bank accounts of his father the defense minister, his uncle the king, and assorted royal princes — from Britain's BEA and American military contractors.

Even as the original corruption charges were quashed by Prime Minister Blair of Britain — for national security reasons, he said — they have been picked up by American investigators looking for more of the pocket money that went to the Saudi royals — widely known in the Arab world as Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. The issue is of some import at Annapolis, since the conference is part of bringing a new age of peace and modernity to the ancient, dysfunctional Middle East. Under these circumstances, Saudis do not seem to shine as examples of leadership and integrity.

Sitting at Annapolis too will be the delegates of the so-called Palestinian Authority. There is Mahmoud Abbas, whose powers stop at the threshold of his villa in Ramallah. He will not be speaking for a kaleidoscopic Palestinian Arab world of Hamas Jihadists, leftist gangs, and plain mafiosos who are the remainder of his constituency. Neither will he represent other Palestinian Arabs in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, who answer to Damascus and Tehran.

As a correspondent in the Middle East, I covered countless peace parleys, starting with the original gathering of owls back on October 30, 1991, in Madrid that brought Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Arabs, the Europeans, and the Soviets. That first great circus act yielded, as we now know, no peace. But it did produce momentum solely because a then-triumphant president, George H.W. Bush, and his secretary of state, James Baker, emerged victorious from the first Gulf war in 1991.

Such is not the case this week at Annapolis. Mr. Bush the son, and his secretary of state Ms. Rice are going into this one as anemic supplicants pleading with a collection of keystone cops for anything that can be dubbed success. A far more attainable success may have been wrung from an Iraq conference seeking to build on what finally seems to be some progress there. Instead, Ms. Rice picked a sure loser — ending the 50-year conflict of Arabs and Jews in one afternoon photo opportunity.

Equally hard to believe is the coyness of it all. The ever-precious Saudis first said no, then maybe, and then okay. The Egyptians, who were not needed in the first place, said please. The Syrians are doing us the favor of coming.

Yet it remains unclear how the same Saudis, who last week were busy condemning a rape victim to 200 lashes, can contribute to anything called a "civilized" Middle East. Nor how President Assad's killing machine, which for two years has been picking off pro-Western politicians in neighboring Lebanon, will push peace negotiations.

At Annapolis, too, goes a uniquely hapless prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, who almost single-handedly in the summer of 2006 lost a war to Hezbollah. This is negotiating from a position of strength?

Clearly what will happen at Annapolis is that Mr. Bush, the man who promised modernity and democracy for the Middle East, will inaugurate it with a speech that will be quickly forgotten, then leave the grounds for the rest of the world to grumble over the next year about yet another American Middle East failure.

 

 

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