Crown Prince Abdullah

Saudi Arabia’s prince of peace.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah has done what Yasser Arafat refused to do at Camp David: Make a counteroffer. The plan Abdullah floated to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in February was initially dismissed by the Bush administration and much of the American foreign policy establishment. Land for peace? Been there, done that. But two-and-a-half months later the Arab world has promised normalization of relations with Israel—the Israeli flag flying over embassies in Riyadh, Damascus, Baghdad, and elsewhere—in exchange for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders, and the Bush administration has embraced the broad outlines of the idea. “The weight of the Arab world is now behind peace with Israel,” a senior administration official told the New York Times Wednesday, “and that’s the only positive development that’s taken place in the last year.” Abdullah’s plan, regardless of its merits, has put Ariel Sharon in the position that Ehud Barak put Arafat in at Camp David: Here’s peace, now you explain why you don’t want it.

The three-way negotiations at Camp David—Israel and Palestine moderated by the United States as an honest broker—have expanded into four-way talks, thanks to Abdullah’s initiative. Both the Americans and the Saudis have an interest in a cease-fire. Bush believes the violence is slowing the momentum of the U.S. war on terrorism. Abdullah believes that a deal will increase his popularity among a grumbling Saudi population faced with 15 percent unemployment, plunging per capita GDP, and declining oil revenues. (Abdullah’s move is meant to impress American voters, too, who blame his country for spawning 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.)

To normalize relations with Israel would be an astonishing development for the world’s most conservative Islamic government now that the Taliban is gone. But since becoming Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in 1995 when King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke, Abdullah, who is 78, has indulged his flair for the dramatic. He made happy with Shiite Iran, even appointing a Shiite ambassador to Tehran to represent his Sunni kingdom. He’s battled the pervasive corruption in the royal family, commanding pampered Saudi princes to cover their phone bills and pay for their plane flights, which they never had to do before. He wants the country to enter the World Trade Organization, which would mean further economic and legal reforms. And he’s even mentioned a larger role for women in Saudi society (though, by American standards, still a minuscule one).

Along with his reforms, however, Abdullah has coddled Saudi Arabia’s Islamic radicals, giving him an anti-American reputation. That reputation was bolstered after Sept. 11, when the Saudis were criticized for not assisting cheerfully enough with U.S. intelligence efforts and not cracking down on Islamic charities that fund terrorism. But the Washington Post reported in February that the Saudis cooperated much more fully with the United States after Sept. 11 than was known at the time—including rushing 9 million barrels of oil to prevent a supply crisis. Much of Abdullah’s anti-Americanism appears to be tactical, designed to assuage those citizens who support an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. In an August letter to Bush he wrote, “Those governments that don’t feel the pulse of the people and respond to it will suffer the same fate of the Shah of Iran.” For the ruler of an absolute monarchy, Abdullah is surprisingly concerned with public opinion, commissioning polls in Saudi Arabia and launching a multimillion-dollar PR blitz in the United States to bolster the kingdom’s sullied reputation.

The obvious question: Is Abdullah’s newfound interest in Middle East negotiations tactical, too? On some level, it surely is. But many Arab leaders prefer the status quo to a solution—the Israeli-Palestinian violence distracts Arab populations from their own ineffectual and corrupt regimes. Abdullah at least appears to actually want to resolve the conflict, even if his motivation is partly self-interested.

And by all accounts, Abdullah feels genuine passion about the plight of the Palestinians. When discussing the issue, he becomes agitated, even angry. At his meeting at Bush’s Texas ranch, Abdullah reportedly insisted that the president review pictures and video of Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes. And after hearing an August speech from Bush that criticized Arafat, Abdullah “went bananas,” a senior Saudi official told the Washington Post. He canceled a joint military review between the Saudis and the Americans and flamed Bush in a letter: “From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region.” But he backed down when Bush replied with a personal letter of his own. Since then, Abdullah continues to talk loudly while carrying a small stick, leaking empty threats to the New York Times about cutting ties with the United States. The truth is, his country’s economy is as dependent on the sale of Saudi oil as the United States is dependent on the purchase of it.

In crashing the peace talks, Abdullah has dampened the anti-Saudi sentiment that prevailed in Washington. But gambling Saudi prestige on the belief that Arafat will rein in the terrorists among his people may be a sucker’s bet. What happens if Arafat ignores Abdullah’s entreaties the way Sharon has ignored Bush’s demands? The credit a leader gets for invoking peace talks is exceeded only by the blame that’s assessed when those talks fail.