King Salman speaks at the 29th Summit of the Arab League at the Ithra center in Dhahran, Eastern Saudi Arabia, on April 15, 2018
Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday slammed Iran’s “blatant interference” in regional affairs as Arab leaders met in the kingdom for an annual gathering.
Opening the 29th Arab League summit, the king also criticised the US decision to transfer its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and described “terrorism” as the biggest challenge facing Arab leaders.
Seventeen leaders from across the Arab world – minus Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – gathered in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran for the summit, which this year comes as world powers face off over Syria and tensions rise between Riyadh and Tehran.
The meeting opened only 24 hours after a barrage of strikes launched by the United States, Britain and France hit targets they said were linked to chemical weapons development in Syria, which was suspended from the league seven years ago.
But King Salman avoided any mention of Syria in his address, as a seat marked “Syrian Arab Republic” sat empty in the hall.
Instead the king focused on rivalries with long-time foe Iran – only 160 kilometres (100 miles) across the Gulf from Dharan.
“We renew our strong condemnation of Iran’s terrorist acts in the Arab region and reject its blatant interference in the affairs of Arab countries,” the king said.
And despite being a stalwart ally of the United States, the ruler also criticised US President Donald Trump controversial decision to transfer America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We reiterate our rejection of the US decision on Jerusalem,” Salman said. “East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Palestinian territories.”
- Donation for East Jerusalem -
Arab ministers at a preliminary meeting in Riyadh on Thursday focused heavily on blocking the move, unanimously condemning Trump’s decision.
King Salman on Sunday announced a $150 million donation for the maintenance of Islamic heritage in East Jerusalem.
Saudi Arabia is pushing for a tough, unified stance against its regional arch-rival Iran at the annual gathering of the 22-member Arab League.
The two regional titans back opposing sides in a range of hotspots across the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria and in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour Yemen.
Iran is backing Shiite Huthi rebels that Riyadh opposes in Yemen and on Sunday Salman praised “the UN Security Council’s statement denouncing the Iranian-made ballistic missile fire on Saudi cities.”
Last month the Security Council issued a statement condemning Huthi missile attacks on Saudi, but did not name Iran.
In February, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have expressed concern over Iran’s failure to block supplies of missiles to Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
The summit also comes with Saudi Arabia and Qatar locked in a months-long diplomatic standoff, with Riyadh accusing Doha of supporting Islamist extremists and being too close to Iran.
Tensions have eased slightly in recent months but Qatar still only sent its representative to the Arab League to the Dhahran summit.
Among the leaders in attendance was Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who walked the red carpet and was greeted by King Salman. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for five counts of crimes against humanity, three counts of genocide and two counts of war crimes.
Summits of the Arab League, established in 1945, rarely result in action. The last time the bloc made a concrete move was in 2011, when it suspended Syria’s membership over the Assad regime’s role in the war.
A general view of the Ithra center during the 28th summit of the Arab League in Dhahran in Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia on April 15, 2018
Syria’s war, the most complex of the region’s conflicts, is the main point of contention pitting Riyadh and its allies, who mainly back Sunni rebels, against regime backer Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
Gulf Arab states have made massive donations to Syria but have not officially offered asylum to Syrians.