Saudi king seeks Arab unity on Iran, Jerusalem

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DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia used its perch as host of an annual gathering of Arab leaders Sunday to push for a unified stance against rival Iran and criticized the U.S. over Jerusalem.

Saudi King Salman told leaders from across the 22-member Arab League that Iran was to blame for instability and meddling in the region. He said Yemeni rebel Houthis, backed by Iran, had fired 116 missiles at the kingdom since Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen three years ago to try and roll back Houthi gains there. The summit took place in the oil-rich eastern Saudi city of Dhahran, a location that may have been selected by the kingdom to avoid cross-border Houthi missile strikes that have targeted the capital, Riyadh, and southern border cities.

King Salman, dubbing the Arab League meeting the “Jerusalem summit,” reiterated Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The king also announced Saudi Arabia had donated $150 million to the religious administration that oversees Muslim sites in Jerusalem, including Al-Aqsa mosque, which is one of Islam’s holiest sites. He announced another $50 million for programs run by UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians, after the U.S. slashed its aid.

The strongest criticism of the Trump administration came from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who slammed U.S. decisions on Jerusalem and its decision to withhold millions of dollars to UNRWA, which provides health care, education and social services to an estimated 5 million Palestinians.

“The decisions have made the United States a party to the conflict and not a neutral mediator,” he said.

Arab heads of state stressed in their opening remarks unity and unwavering support for Palestinians.

The summit this year takes place after the U.S., Britain and France launched dozens of airstrikes early Saturday at sites they said were linked to Syrian chemical weapons program. President Bashar Assad and his close ally, Russia, deny government forces ever used such weapons.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Assad’s government and “international players trying to achieve their own strategic political goals” bear responsibility for the collapse of that nation.“Regional interference in Arab affairs has reached an unprecedented degree. And first of these is the Iranian interference, the aim of which is not for the well-being of the Arabs or their interests,” he said.

The Saudi monarch made no reference to Syria in his remarks before Arab leaders amid divisions within the region-wide body over support for the U.S.-led airstrikes on Syria.

Speaking at a news conference after the end of the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Arab League leaders condemned the “criminal” use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for an international investigation.

Assad was not invited to the summit, though most heads of state from across the Middle East and North Africa attended the Arab League meeting, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Saudi tensions with neighboring Qatar were also on display at the summit. Qatar’s emir was not in attendance, instead dispatching his country’s Arab League representative to the meeting.