It's the last day of the Arab League summit, March 29, and at the New Man barbershop, Ali Trabulsi is keeping one eye on his scissors and the other on a wall-mounted TV tuned to live coverage of the Arab leaders assembled in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"The Saudis are really challenging the Americans, aren't they?" Trabulsi says gleefully, shearing the beard from a customer's face. "They don't want to listen to Bush anymore. They know that he's weak and that his people are turning against him." When one of his assistants turns on a blow-drier, Trabulsi makes him turn it off so he can hear Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal boasting how Arab leaders refused to change any part of their peace offer to Israel.
But what really excited Trabulsi was a speech at the summit's opening a day earlier by Saudi King Abdullah, in which he denounced, for the first time, the US occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate." "In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing among brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," Abdullah said. Trabulsi normally turns the TV in his shop to soap operas or music videos, but he tuned in to the summit around the clock–even if some customers complained about being bored by the rhetoric.
It's not just the notoriously skeptical Arab street that is falling for the Saudi regime's latest attempt to distance itself from unpopular US policies. American media and analysts rushed to portray Abdullah's comments as evidence that the Saudis are abandoning the Bush Administration, and that a renewed partnership between Washington and Sunni Arab regimes–to counter Iran–is dead.
Abdullah's speech "underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at American urging," the New York Times wrote in a front-page story on March 29. "The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally."
Newsweek went even further, billing Abdullah's comments as "just the latest volley in Saudi Arabia's war of independence from Washington" and offering a glowing Q&A with the Saudi foreign minister. Even the Arab press got in on the trend: The leftist Beirut daily as-Safir titled its lead editorial "King Abdullah in Opposition."
There are signs that the Saudis are pursuing their own agenda in the Middle East. In February Abdullah brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government in the Palestinian territories. The king called for an end to the US and European boycott of the Palestinian administration–despite Israeli and US insistence that the embargo continue until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. The Saudis are also reaching out to Iran: Abdullah recently hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh, while other Saudi leaders are working with Iranian officials to broker an end to the five-month-old political crisis in Lebanon.