Saudi king sits next to Iran´s Ahmadinejad in goodwill gesture (REUTERS) By Angus McDowall RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA 08/14/12 7:05pm EDT)
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(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia´s King Abdullah seated Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his side to welcome leaders to a summit on
Wednesday, an apparent conciliatory gesture before the Organisation
of Islamic Cooperation suspends the membership of Iran´s ally Syria.
Foreign ministers of the 57-member body have already agreed to
suspend Syria over President Bashar al-Assad´s crackdown on protests.
The decision, which requires support of two thirds of members and is
strongly opposed by Tehran, is expected to be implemented on
Wednesday at a summit called by Abdullah in the holy city of Mecca.
Syria´s civil war has divided Muslim countries on sectarian lines,
with Sunni-led Arab states and Turkey backing Syria´s rebels, while
Shi´ite Iran supports Assad.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi´ite Iran have tussled for influence in
recent years in sectarian conflicts across the Middle East. In giving
Iran´s leader such a prominent place at the summit - shown on Saudi
state television - King Abdullah was making what analysts described
as an important gesture.
"It was a message to the Iranian nation and, I assume, to the Saudi
people, that we are Muslim and we have to work together and forget
about our differences," said Abdullah al-Shammari, a Saudi political
Ahmadinejad, wearing the dark suit and shirt without tie favored by
Iranian leaders, sat at the left hand of the octogenarian king in his
traditional Arab robes. The two were shown talking and sometimes
As each of the leaders, including those of major Middle Eastern and
South Asian states, arrived in the entrance chamber, Abdullah rose to
meet him followed by Ahmadinejad.
The emir of Qatar, which like Saudi Arabia has voiced support for
Syria´s rebels, sat on Abdullah´s other side.
Analysts had billed the summit as a potential showdown between Iran
and Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia over Tehran´s support for Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad in his 17-month suppression of a popular
"I think Abdullah is trying to tell Ahmadinejad that whatever Saudi
Arabia wants with regard to Syria is not going to be directed against
Iran," said Saudi political scientist Khalid al-Dakhil.
Riyadh has called for Syrians to be "enabled to protect themselves"
if the international community cannot protect them, and has
excoriated Assad´s use of force against civilians.
Iran has echoed the narrative of Assad´s government that the country
is being torn apart by "terrorist gangs" supported by Sunni states
and the West.
Riyadh has also accused Tehran of fomenting discord in the Gulf by
backing a popular uprising among majority Shi´ites in Bahrain against
the Sunni monarchy there and stirring unrest among Saudi Arabia´s own
Tehran denies responsibility for unrest and accuses the Sunni states
of crushing Shi´ite dissent.
Analysts said the move to place Ahmadinejad next to Abdullah was
intended to soothe sectarian ill will across the wider Middle East.
"King Abdullah was showing Shi´ites: we haven´t tried to skip over
you and ignore you. And he was showing to Sunnis here that here is
Ahmadinejad and he is a Muslim too. He is not different to us," said
That message was reinforced in Abdullah´s opening speech to the
conference, in which he proposed setting up a center for dialogue
between different Muslim sects. (Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing
By Peter Graff) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 08/14/12)
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