The Mecca Summits: Spinning the Wheels on Iran

During May 30-31, the Saudi Arabian city, Mecca, played host to two emergency summit meetings for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the League of Arab States as well as the 14th regular meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud used the meetings to rally Arab and Muslim support for the kingdom’s claims regarding Iran’s malign activities and support for “terrorist militias” following attacks on oil tankers off the Emirati coast and on a Saudi oil pipeline. But now that the meetings have ended and the invitees left Mecca, it is obvious that the summits missed the opportunities to repair intra-GCC relations, after two years of the ongoing Gulf crisis, and to address the underlying causes of strife in the GCC and the Arab world.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia’s pugilistic meetings may have deepened the existing crises and widened the chasms preventing collective action among Gulf, Arab, and Muslim countries. While the conferences concentrated on the single objective of pillorying Iran (which was represented at the OIC summit by Reza Najafi, a foreign ministry official), there was not much discussion about the divide in the GCC or the active military conflicts besetting Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Not even Palestine––the supposed holy grail of Arab politics––received the conferees’ requisite attention as the Trump Administration and the Israeli establishment try to liquidate the last vestiges of Palestinian national rights. In the end, only the communiqué from the OIC conference contained a rejection of what is being planned for Palestinian-Israeli peace and condemned the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

GCC Crisis Will Continue

The crisis precipitated in June 2017 with the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain––with an assist from Egypt––just entered its third year with the GCC quartet still at odds. Qatar, for all intents and purposes, has succeeded in addressing the economic and financial repercussions of the boycott and siege imposed on it by land, sea, and air. But just as detrimental for GCC collective action is its isolation from effective participation in the council’s decision-making like any other full member. With its absence and Kuwait’s and Oman’s reluctance to join the strident foreign policy behavior of the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini collective, it is not hard to pronounce the unfortunate and utterly needless death of the erstwhile council.

With Qatar’s absence and Kuwait’s and Oman’s reluctance to join the strident foreign policy behavior of the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini collective, it is not hard to pronounce the unfortunate and utterly needless death of the erstwhile council.

One would think that the participation of Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani in the Mecca meetings presented an opportunity to open discussions about ways to address the issues that purportedly instigated the 2017 crisis. In fact, had the willingness to break the logjam existed, Sheikh Abdullah would most likely have obliged by staying for a few more days as a guest empowered to negotiate the issues that continue to irk the sensitivities of the blockading countries. Similarly, the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, and the Omani counselor to Sultan Qaboos, Shihab bin Tariq Al Said, would also have been happy to continue their facilitation to find common ground between the parties.

Instead, what everyone received after the three summits were prepared bellicose communiqués criticizing Iran’s activities and proving that the meetings were convened for the sole purpose of forming a coalition to confront the Islamic Republic. Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani minced no words criticizing the communiqués, voicing his country’s opposition to the Saudi stand, and calling for dialogue with Iran. It is also hard to see how Kuwait and Oman could have been happy with the statements, considering their openness on—and relations with—Iran as well as their readiness to find common ground with it. Incidentally, the Qatari foreign minister’s objection to the communiqués was quickly excoriated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, which cited it as proof to them that Qatar distorts facts and disrespects agreements.

With animosity still defining intra-GCC relations and the blockading countries maintaining their siege of Qatar, all Gulf countries are at a dangerous strategic disadvantage.

With animosity still defining intra-GCC relations and the blockading countries maintaining their siege of Qatar, all Gulf countries are at a dangerous strategic disadvantage. This is made more acute by the Trump Administration’s change of heart about confronting Iran. In late May, President Donald Trump surprised everyone during a visit to Japan when he declared that the administration is not seeking regime change in Tehran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo simply abandoned the 12 demands he had made of Iran and announced Washington’s readiness to unconditionally negotiate with it. Although National Security Advisor John Bolton still accused Iran of responsibility for recent attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Sea, it is obvious that the administration is no longer interested in a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic. In other words, GCC countries may have been left to face Iranian behavior alone while they continue to lack the sense of unity of purpose necessary for future challenges in the Gulf.

The Arab World Still Bleeds

The Mecca conferences were held as the Arab world was ending another month of Ramadan beset by civil wars and strife. As if by design, the emphasis on confronting Iran came off as a mighty effort to forget and avoid such Arab calamities as the existential danger to the cause of Palestine, the devastating wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the threats confronting the Algerian and Sudanese peoples’ revolts against authoritarianism. Time spent agitating against Iran’s behavior, as if it were the only concern facing the Arab world, was another missed opportunity that could have been used to formulate plans for ridding the region of many of the causes of its largely avoidable conflicts.

What was especially sinister was the neglect of the question of Palestine at this specific juncture of a full-on assault on Palestinian rights by the Trump Administration and the Israeli right-wing establishment. The final communiqué1 of the summit of Arab leaders included an obligatory one-liner asserting their adherence to previous League resolutions regarding Palestinian rights and the status of Jerusalem. This as the Trump Administration is preparing to release a much-vaunted Palestinian-Israeli peace plan that, from leaks to the press, promises to liquidate the national right of the Palestinians to an independent state. Indeed, the fixation on Iran could arguably be seen by the Israeli government and the Trump Administration as an admission by the Arab world that the question of Palestine is no longer the central concern of its leaders, who might as well seek an accommodation with Israel without regard to Palestinian rights.

The fixation on Iran could arguably be seen by the Israeli government and the Trump Administration as an admission by the Arab world that the question of Palestine is no longer the central concern of its leaders.

Neither did the emphasis on Iranian perfidy benefit the objective of freeing Syria from the Islamic Republic’s influence. In fact, the attacks on Iran were limited to its supposed responsibility for the sabotage of Saudi and Emirati tankers and strikes against the Saudi east-west pipeline. If the Mecca conferees had been more concerned with Iran’s role in Syria––an arguably more worthy reason to confront it––they would have discussed how they could free that Arab League member from the hold not only of Iranian troops and affiliated militias but also from Russian near-domination. What has indeed been the case since Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 is the total absence of the Arab world, and more specifically the Gulf states, from both diplomatic endeavors to help end Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule and to provide military assistance to the opposition to enable a challenge to Iran’s militias.

The summits’ avoidance of a discussion about Libya as a bleeding wound in the Arab world was natural considering the support by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt for renegade General Khalifa Haftar as he attacks the capital, Tripoli. In fact, providing full support to the kingdom’s complaints about Iran may be easily misconstrued by the Saudi leadership as acceptance of their—and others’—positions on the Libya issue. Libya, of course, was farthest from the minds of the Saudi planners of the summits, although support to Haftar cripples the ongoing UN-led peace effort and potential arrangements for a constitutional referendum and national elections that were set for later this year.

Perhaps what irks Saudi Arabia most is the ongoing challenge that Yemen’s Houthis pose to its security and stability, now that they seem entrenched in the capital, Sanaa, and the battlefield appears stalemated. But Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to a degree, are in a bind on Yemen. On the one hand, the Houthis have been able to stand up to the Saudi-led coalition since its military operations in Yemen began in March 2015. In fact, the Houthi drone attacks on the Saudi pipeline and Najran and Jizan airports––following similar attacks on Abu Dhabi’s airport and other targets––cannot be discounted, nor can their successes in controlling Saudi border positions, if they are true. On the other hand, maintaining the war on Yemen is a drain on Saudi resources and reputation, as civilians continue to die in ill-executed aerial bombings and the country’s humanitarian crisis worsens. To be sure, it is unlikely that Saudi criticism of Iranian sponsorship of the Houthis or the support Riyadh received from Gulf, Arab, and Muslim countries will provide the necessary help Saudi Arabia needs to address its Yemen dilemma.

What is apparent is that the Iranian bogeyman can also be used to divert attention from other iterations of the 2011 waves of protest against the status quo in the Arab world.

Finally, Saudi Arabia called for the GCC and Arab League summits as emergency meetings to discuss its gripes about Iran while entrenched autocratic forces in Algeria and Sudan were resisting popular calls for ending authoritarian rule. In essence, what is apparent is that the Iranian bogeyman can also be used to divert attention from other iterations of the 2011 waves of protest against the status quo in the Arab world. As the summits were ongoing, the Algerian military continued to stonewall popular demands for change that began last December and to arrest activists. In Sudan, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) changed its tune about helping the country to turn in a democratic direction following Saudi and Emirati encouragement, prompting an unusual rebuke from the United States. The TMC is also using violence against popular protests that resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of demonstrators.

Controlling the Narrative and the Agenda

Saudi Arabia’s success in limiting the Mecca summits’ discussions to Iran’s malign activities––despite some objections from some Arab countries––opens the door wide to unwarranted consequences for collective Arab action. In fact, this success may be a prelude to further instability in the Gulf and the wider Arab world.

The first such consequence is an almost complete Saudi expropriation of collective Arab decision-making regarding Iran. If Riyadh sees that reaching an accommodation with the Islamic Republic as contrary to its policy, then any country attempting such a policy may be seen as betraying an Arab strategic outlook—even committing treason to the Arab cause. If this becomes the yardstick of collective Arab action, then Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, Lebanon, and countries in north Africa (Syria remains to be seen) would automatically likely be ostracized, no matter their own political and domestic concerns. This would arguably also be the case with the United Arab Emirates, which shares such an exclusivist approach with Saudi Arabia.

Second, this expropriation puts Saudi and Emirati leaders in control of what should concern the Arab world, in terms of relations with Iran as well as a host of other issues that do not concern the Islamic Republic. For instance, if these leaders endorse a Trump Administration plan eviscerating Palestinian national rights, concerned countries such as Jordan and Lebanon cannot object since they would be punished (though they may be adversely affected if they go along, too). If Libya allows Islamist factions to participate in government following a potential UN-led peace process, then assistance to Haftar to sabotage that process would continue.

Third, allowing the Saudi-Emirati entente to control the agenda of the Arab world spells disaster to the calls for political change from authoritarian rule. If anything is learned from the Egyptian counterrevolution of 2013, it is that the military institutions that dominate political life in the Arab world will always find support in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to thwart attempts to shake the foundations of oppression. That the two capitals are propping up Libya’s Haftar and the Sudanese TMC are clear cases in point.

If the kingdom intends to completely dominate Arab politics, it would do better to emphasize plans for addressing the many ills and conflicts besetting the Arab world.

As Saudi Arabia tries to corral the Arab world to support its antagonistic approach toward Iran, it behooves leaders in Riyadh and other Arab capitals to remember that ill-advised and ill-conceived confrontations may only increase instability in the Gulf and the wider Arab region. If the kingdom intends to completely dominate Arab politics, it would do better to emphasize plans for addressing the many ills and conflicts besetting the Arab world. Precious resources and much money have been wasted needlessly on endeavors that now have become too burdensome to sustain.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.