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Arab and Muslim leaders meet to condemn Israeli aggression in Gaza

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, appeared to form a united front when they met in Riyadh on Saturday for a summit on the war. The two countries were among 50 other Arab- and Muslim-majority nations who condemned what they described as Israeli aggression in Gaza. Summit leaders called for a cease-fire, the swift delivery of aid to Palestinians and action from the United Nations Security Council. So how much do Iran and Saudi Arabia really agree? Sanam Vakil is director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, which is a policy think tank based in London. Hi there.

SANAM VAKIL: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Good morning. How does Saudi Arabia view its role in this war between Israel and Hamas?

VAKIL: Well, Saudi Arabia is certainly at the forefront of multilateral diplomacy. It's held two summits over the weekend in Riyadh, the Organization of Islamic Countries (ph) and the Arab State - Arab League Summit, together to show its influence, its ability to convene and bring all of these countries together and try to make a case for a cease-fire and a unified position at this critical time.

INSKEEP: Although this is tricky for the Saudis, I would think. I assume they're no fans of Hamas. They're not really fans of Iran, even though they've been trying to get along better recently. And they were close to opening diplomatic relations with Israel, which would have been a big deal. Is their position more complicated than this statement from the summit would suggest?

VAKIL: Yes, the Saudis are in a very tricky position. They did indeed restore diplomatic ties with Tehran earlier this year. And over the weekend, President Raisi, Iran's president, was welcomed in Riyadh. And this was the first visit from an Iranian leader since 2005. So this was an important turning point. It's showing that the Saudis are prioritizing direct dialogue with the Iranians to manage ties and sort of build diplomacy going forward. But at the same time, yes, you're right. The Saudis, like most countries in the region, are no fans of Hamas. I don't think Hamas has a huge degree of support. Most people - and I think the Saudi state included - is looking to find a way to protect Palestinian self-determination. And that was meant to be part of the broader negotiation managed by the Biden administration to normalize Saudi-Israeli ties. That process is certainly much farther along the road because of the war and because of the violence and the issue of the Palestinian peace process being very uncertain right now.

INSKEEP: When you say much farther along the road, you mean it is a more distant prospect? Is that what you mean?

VAKIL: It is a distant prospect, but I wouldn't rule it out. I think the Saudis certainly have the biggest incentive to lay on the table for normalization with Israel. But it would require the Israeli electorate and political establishment having to compromise and deliver some political solution and hopefully some aspect of statehood for Palestine and Palestinians.

INSKEEP: Could the Saudis give real pressure to the Israelis to change at least how they're conducting the war, even if they don't stop the war?

VAKIL: I think that that pressure is taking place behind the scenes, but Saudi Arabia is being quite cautious and not making too many public statements beyond pushing for the humanitarian cease-fire and quick end to the war. Its role will be much farther along in the diplomatic back channel and front channel that we should be seeing play out in the coming months.

INSKEEP: OK. Sanam Vakil of Chatham House, thanks very much for your insights.

VAKIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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