Saudi Arabia banking on Muslim and Arab summits to strengthen its hand. Don’t believe the hype

Asian Angle by James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia banking on Muslim and Arab summits to strengthen its hand. Don’t believe the hype

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts and Tumblr

·        Strongly worded statements are the most likely outcome given the divisions in the region after eight years of war in Syria and inaction over Yemen’s humanitarian crisis
·        Riyadh hopes three high-level gatherings in two days will bolster its position as a leader of the Islamic and Arab world

Published: 5:49pm, 31 May, 2019

Saudi King Salman opened the Arab summit with a call for a “decisive and repelling stand” that would stop alleged Iranian aggression. Photo: AP

Three back-to-back, high-level Muslim and Arab summits  held over the past two days are likely to yield very little despite the hype surrounding them.

Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the meetings against the backdrop of mounting tension between the 
United States and Iran, expects the gatherings to back its campaign to force the Islamic Republic to halt its support for regional proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen  and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is banking on the site and timing of the summits – Mecca, as Ramadan  nears its end – to strengthen its standing as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities and facilitate its ability to project its stand on Iran and other issues as one representing the Islamic and Arab world.

That could prove easier said than done. The three organisations involved – the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 22-member Arab League and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – are deeply divided over Iran, how to restore regional security, and a host of other issues.

The Iranian flag. Tensions with the republic are a topic of discussion at the summits. Photo: Reuters

Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Oman and Qatar have adopted less strident positions towards Tehran. Some are believed to be backchannelling between the US and Iran.

Behind the scenes, various Muslim and Arab leaders, including some of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies, are likely to urge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to prevent tensions with Iran from escalating into military conflict.

Bottom of Form

Officials from the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to dial down tensions, have so far refrained from apportioning blame for the sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman  and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline, pending the outcome of an investigation.

Some leaders are likely to advise Salman to entertain Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s proposal that Iran and the Gulf states sign a non-aggression pact.

First indications are that the advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Photo: EPA

Saudi King Salman opened the Arab summit with a call for a “decisive and repelling stand” that would stop alleged Iranian aggression. He accused Iran of developing nuclear and ballistic missiles, ignoring the denials coming out of Tehran.

The belligerent Saudi tone was set before the summit, when the country’s foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, urged an OIC foreign ministers gathering before the Mecca meeting to confront with “force and firmness” the oil tanker sabotage and drone attack. Arab News, a newspaper owned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brother, Turki bin Salman al-Saud, called for the US to carry out “surgical strikes” against Iran.

But despite King Salman’s call, Iraq has deflected the attack, reflecting the division among Arab states. Its president, Barham Salih, told leaders at the summit that the security and stability of Iran is “in the interest of Muslim and Arab states”, adding that he hopes Tehran’s “security is not targeted”.

A boy looks at destroyed houses in Sanaa, Yemen, where residents are suffering through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Photo: EPA

The prospects for concrete results from the three summits are further clouded by the fact that Iran is but one of a host of issues discussed – and Muslim and Arab leaders are deeply divided on most of them. These include US proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, relations with Israel, the war in Yemen, the rift in the Gulf between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE-led alliance, the conflict in Libya, and the popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan.

The US peace plan, in particular, is likely to be rejected in starker terms than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would like. The prince and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, as well as Bahraini leaders, have privately supported the American effort, despite the widespread perception that it favours Israel and ignores Palestinian aspirations.

Similarly, the presence at the Arab and GCC summits of Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani has raised hopes that a resolution to the two-year-old blockade of his country may be at hand. This is unfounded.

Sheikh Abdullah’s presence in Mecca constitutes the highest-level contact between Qatar and its detractors since the blockade was imposed, but he is only there because the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, decided not to attend. This suggests a breakthrough or loosening of the embargo is a remote possibility, at best.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: AFP

Finally, one major reason to expect little will come from the summits is the track record of the three organisations involved: they have no history of shaping policy and translating it into effective action.

Given these factors, one would be wise to temper expectations. Strongly worded statements are the most likely outcome. Given the entrenched, opposing positions of Muslim and Arab countries after eight years of war in Syria and inaction as Yemenis suffer the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, that might be deemed a success. The bar has indeed been set low.

Indeed, the final communique of the GCC summit, the group in which Saudi Arabia has perhaps the most leverage, was a harbinger of things to come: it made no apparent mention of the sabotage of oil tankers, but condemned attacks by Houthi militias on oil pipelines and insisted that Iran halt its support of the rebels.

The best the Saudis can hope for is that they will walk away from the summits bolstered by a blanket condemnation of “terrorism”. Riyadh will then be free to interpret this – and trumpet it – as a reference to Iran and its ambitions.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute


Popular posts from this blog

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

Israeli & Palestinian war crimes? Yes. Genocide? Maybe. A talk with Omer Bartov

Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem