WASHINGTON – In a serious rebuff to U.S. diplomacy, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has refused to receive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the eve of a critical regional summit about the future of the war-ravaged country, Iraqi and Arab officials said Saturday.
The Saudi leader’s decision reflects growing tensions between the oil-rich regional giants, deepening skepticism among Sunni leaders in the Middle East about Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, and Arab concern about prospects of U.S. success in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also indicates the al-Maliki government faces a creeping regional isolation unless it takes long-delayed actions.
For the United States, the Saudi cold shoulder undermines hopes of healing regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite-dominated governments and producing a new spirit of cooperation on Iraq at the summit Thursday and Friday.
The Bush administration has invested significantly in the Egypt meeting, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said on Thursday the United States holds out a “lot of hope” that the conference will serve as a catalyst to garner regional and international support to help solve Iraq’s problems.
State Department Iraq Coordinator David Satterfield has been in the region for two weeks trying to broker behind-the-scenes agreements in the run-up to the summits, which are expected to sign a debt relief accord for Iraq the first day and hold discussions among Iraq’s neighbors the second day.
The official reason for the Saudi snub, Iraqi officials said, was that the king’s schedule is full. But sources involved in negotiations say the king is increasingly unhappy about al-Maliki’s failure to do more on reconciliation, despite pressure from the Arab world, the United States and other nations.
The kingdom, ruled by a Sunni royal family, is concerned about the growing influence of Shiite-ruled Iran. Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and birthplace of one of its most conservative ideologies, has been playing a more prominent role in regional affairs, so its snub is likely to resonate throughout the Middle East, Arab sources say.