Saudi king sits next to Iran's Ahmadinejad in goodwill gesture

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah 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 suspends the membership of Iran’s ally Syria.

Foreign ministers of the 57-member body have already agreed to suspend Syria over President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protests. The decision, which requires support of two thirds of members and is strongly opposed by Tehran, is expected to be implemented on Wednesday at a summit called by Abdullah in the holy city of Mecca.

Syria’s civil war has divided Muslim countries on sectarian lines, with Sunni-led Arab states and Turkey backing Syria’s rebels, while Shi’ite Iran supports Assad.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have tussled for influence in recent years in sectarian conflicts across the Middle East. 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 favored by Iranian leaders, sat at the left hand of the octogenarian 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, which 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 Sunni 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 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.

Iran has echoed the narrative of Assad’s government that the country is being torn apart by “terrorist gangs” supported by Sunni states and the West.

Riyadh has also accused Tehran of fomenting discord in the Gulf by backing a popular uprising among majority Shi’ites in Bahrain against the Sunni monarchy there and stirring unrest among Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority.

Tehran denies responsibility for unrest and accuses the Sunni states of crushing Shi’ite dissent.

Analysts said the move to place Ahmadinejad next to Abdullah was intended to soothe sectarian ill will across the wider Middle East.

“King Abdullah was showing Shi’ites: we haven’t tried to skip over you and ignore you. And he was showing to Sunnis here that here is Ahmadinejad and he is a Muslim too. He is not different to us,” said Shammari.

That message was reinforced in Abdullah’s opening speech to the conference, in which he proposed setting up a center for dialogue between different Muslim sects.

Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing By Peter Graff