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With Friends Like These...

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud is the monarch of Saudi Arabia. He is 85, having succeeded his half-brother, the decrepit King Fahd, who succeeded his half-brother, Khalid, who succeeded... The founder of the "modern" Saudi state had 37 sons. Abdullah is the sixth of the male line to rule. No princesses, of course.

It was King Abdullah before whom President Obama bowed during his April visit to Riyadh. It was also he from whom Obama got zilch in his quest for Arab assistance in easing the atmospherics--and really just the atmospherics--of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Not that Obama received anything from any of the Arabs--not even in response to his Cairo address, which read them the world as they themselves read it.

(If you want a profound explanation of the administration's expectations and disappointments from the Arabs--and the Saudis especially--you should read Michael Scott Doran's piece, "Naïve pan-Arabism in Washington", a recent installment of an ongoing series, Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH). I first came across Doran's name and work in an essay, "The Saudi Paradox", from the January-February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs. Bernard Gwertzman did an interview with him shortly after it was published. After reading these two, I found another Foreign Affairs essay exactly a year earlier by Doran, "Palestine, Iraq and American Strategy", laying out the impending Washington blunders. Doran has also published a book, Pan Arabism Before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question.)

The fact is that, if the Saudi royals care more than a fig about the Palestinians, they'll satisfy their compassionate instincts by ponying up very small amounts of cash for the cause. But the evidence points to a basic indifference to the real needs of Palestine other than as a diversion from their troubles (like those of other Arab rulers)--brigand chiefs turned into monarchies, abracadabra, military juntas purporting to be revolutionary republics--with their own populace.

Still, the various Palestinian flanks would be bestirred a bit if the Saudis gave some hint--and not even much of a hint--that they are behind some settlement short of asserting both the 1949 cease-fire frontiers and the "rights" of every displaced Palestinian to move to Israel. No Arab state has moved ahead of this position. In a sense, this is what remains of pan-Arabism. It is also one of the factors that undermines Obama's first swing at Middle East diplomacy. The president, as Doran points out, "received a resounding 'No' from the Saudis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians--from, that is, the closest Arab allies of the United States."

What's more, Doran wrote:

"It is not at all surprising that the Arab states did not feel obliged to get out and help George Mitchell push the peace process along. What is surprising, however, was the public nature of their rejection. They made no attempt to paper over differences in order to protect and strengthen the president's supposed credibility. Instead, they openly undercut him ... It wasn't supposed to be like this. The president's advisors told him that his Cairo address, especially with open pressure on the Israelis, would generate a wave of Arab cooperation."

Now, I am not at all certain that Obama needed the advice of his consiglieri for him to play tough with Jerusalem (yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel). But whatever the origins of this huge diplomatic gambit, the effort itself has been a colossal failure. A mere 4 percent of Israeli Jews now trust Obama. He is, however, very popular in the Arab market. Still, as almost everyone knows, what's popular in the street means nothing to its rulers.

Oh, yes, one more thing. Obama is so popular in the Cairo fruit market that the sellers have named the best dates of the season--yes, you got it--"Obama," and they are charging $2.50 a pound for them. The lowest quality dates are named for Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, a judgment with which I agree. They can be bought for pennies.

By the way, Doran saw all this coming in July, almost from the beginning. He wrote a piece predicting the failure, "Obama's opening gambit", also for MESH.