At the United Nations General Assembly’s week of speeches this year, the diplomatic forum has felt more like a sinema playing to a largely empty theater.
The speeches from leaders of the 193 member states have been prerecorded because of the pandemic, broadcast to a General Assembly hall that is sparsely populated by socially distanced diplomats, clapping ceremoniously at the conclusion of each 15-minute address.
The speeches — often self-congratulatory — are scrutinized for any policy shifts or even snippets of news, as in the case of President Xi Jinping of China on Tuesday, when he announced an accelerated target for reducing carbon emissions by his country, the leading emitter of heat-trapping gases.
For some leaders who may have been too frail to make the physical trip to the United Nations headquarters in New York, this year’s General Assembly has offered an opportunity, as in the case of King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who spoke on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia’s King: Iran is the Enemy
King Salman, the 85-year-old monarch who ascended the throne of his oil-rich kingdom in 2015 but has left the day-to-day running of affairs to his 35-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, made his General Assembly speech debut. He used it to assail Iran, Saudi Arabia’s longtime regional adversary.
Hunched, bespectacled and grasping the speech text with both hands at an ornate desk, the king extolled Saudi Arabia’s donations to humanitarian causes, which he said had totaled more than $86 billion to 81 countries over the past three decades. He then pivoted to denounce what he called “the forces of extremism and chaos” in the Middle East, singling out Iran.
“The Kingdom’s hands were extended to Iran in peace with a positive and open attitude over the past decades, but to no avail,” the king said. He accused the Iranian government of having exploited international efforts to contain its nuclear activities, supporting the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen and targeting Saudi oil facilities in missile strikes.
“Our experience with the Iranian regime has taught us that partial solutions and appeasement did not stop its threats to international peace and security,” the king said, echoing the language of the Trump administration, which considers Saudi Arabia a vital ally.
The king’s sentiments were basically the opposite of those expressed a day earlier by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who portrayed his country as a peace-loving force for good in the region and the world.
The king also expressed support for the Trump administration’s efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he conspicuously said nothing about the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, as done in recent weeks by two close Saudi regional allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
He concluded by expressing sympathy for the people of Lebanon, struggling from a dysfunctional government and the aftermath of the devastating port explosion last month that leveled part of Beirut. The king called the blast “the result of the hegemony of Hezbollah,” the militant Lebanese Shiite group aligned with Iran. Hezbollah has denied any role in the port blast, which was caused by an abandoned stockpile of ammonium nitrate.
The king said nothing negative about Saudi Arabia’s own military role in the Yemen conflict, a quagmire that the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, where the threat of famine now looms.
He also made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, its extensive use of capital punishment and the targeting of dissidents including Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey two years ago. The king’s son has been linked by American intelligence to Mr. Khashoggi’s death, but the Saudi judiciary has prosecuted only low-level operatives in a secretive trial that was concluded a few weeks ago.