Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz 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 (OIC) suspends the membership of Iran’s ally Syria.
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 analyst.
Ahmadinejad, wearing the dark suit and shirt without tie favoured by Iranian leaders, sat at the left hand of the king in his traditional Arab robes. The two were shown talking and sometimes laughing together.
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, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose country 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 other states led by Saudi Arabia over Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in his 17-month suppression of a popular uprising.
“I think [King} 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.
Analysts said the move to place Ahmadinejad next to Abdullah was intended to soothe sectarian ill will across the wider Middle East.
That message was reinforced in Abdullah’s opening speech to the conference, in which he proposed setting up a centre for dialogue between different Muslim sects.