On the 10 of December the 40th Gulf Summit started, along with the annual meeting of the GCC’s foreign ministers. The summit accepted its final statement only after half an hour, which made it one of the shortest summits. And seemingly nothing changed, as though a Qatari delegation was present, regardless the blockade by most of its Gulf neighbors and Egypt for more than two years, the Qatari monarch refused the invitation and nothing groundbreaking took place. But the conditions are more than interesting. Not only a personal invitation by Saudi King Salmān to the Qatari Emir Tamīm ibn Ḥamad, or the news that the Americans specifically pressured the Emirates, so Muḥammad ibn Zāyid would not attend the summit, so fruitful conversation could take place between Doha and Riyadh, but also the media attention. In one hand the Western and pro-Saudi opinions expressed high hopes that finally a consolidation is on the way, the Irani sources much more reflected those Qatari and Emirati statement, which expressed that it is still early to talk about rapprochement.
This comes amidst similar initiatives in the Gulf, both by the Saudis and the Iranians to finally engage in negotiations and sort out differences. This is once again nothing new, since there were informations even in September that the Saudi leadership tried to reach out to Tehran and used Pakistani mediation. During the last weeks there were a number of indications that this is finally on the way, as both sides managed to inflict sensitive blows to the other, and both seems to finally realized that they reached a dead end. This comes as a result of renewed Omani initiatives to convey a summit between the Gulf states and Iran to sort out problems, which was suggested in the Omani Foreign Minister’s, Yusaf ibn ‘Alawī’s last visit to Tehran on 2 December 2019. Interestingly that was not only welcomed by Tehran, especially after statements by Oman that “Iran is the foundation of peace in the region and there should be a summit with it participation”, but even met with mildly positive feedbacks from Riyadh. What ties the two matters the most is the Qatari attitude to endorse a Gulf-Irani settlement, expressed in the meeting between the Qatari monarch and the Iranian Foreign Minister in August 2019, and now, after the Gulf Summit by Qatari Defense Minister.
Something is clearly changing in the attitudes and visibly on all sides. The suggestions are numerous, not only for the reasons, but also about the results, whether a shift in the two biggest crises would effect the already entrenched alliances. Could the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement come on the price of worsening Saudi-Emirati relations, which might has a backlash on the Saudi internal politics as King Salmān and the old guard try to reassert power and distance the overly active Crown Prince from his mentor, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid in Abū Zabī? Can that mean a realignment in the Qatari-Turkish relations? Which is now a vital questions as Turkey recently raised the stakes in Libya by offering to send troops, which was met with not only with Egyptian fury, but also with Qatari support. And in this supposed changing political climate an engagement with Iran is only used as a tool to obtain calm background for it, or can it be truly a beginning of more substantial peace process?
All this, of course, is highly connected to two other major developments in the region. The growing protest movement still ongoing in Lebanon and Iraq, a major worry for the Axis of Resistance, and the escalation in Libya, which much more worries the Egyptian-Saudi tandem, which is clearly on the losing sides. Some of these matters we already discussed, while Libya shall be our topic soon. But for this week, we look into the peace initiatives towards Qatar and Iran, as clearly we can witness altering currents in the Gulf.
Oman steps in again.
Many times during the summer we discussed the steps between the Axis of Resistance and the pro-Saudi block to harm each other. In that the pro-Iran camp was gaining the upper hand, most significantly by the hit on Aramco, which not only proved that Saudi Arabia can not defend itself, but also that regardless all the media show it failed to prove the case on Iran. And this time the refusal of the Saudi accusations comes from the U.N. Secretary General.
The balance, however, shifted once again, especially by the end of the year. With all the foothold gained Tehran did manage to secure gains in certain fronts, while experiences significant blowbacks in many others. The American sanctions scrapping the JCPOA are harmful, but on their on would not prove to be catastrophic. The real problem is that progress was made with the European partners, who simply cannot deliver their promises, regardless the INSTEX initiative and its growing number of members. Which created a very delicate situation, where in one hand the JCPOA still binds and limits Iran, which cannot move on completely, yet on the other hand it does not work by the American sanctions, therefore the advantages cannot be exploited. And this takes up huge time and afford and to a certain limit paralyzes the Iranian diplomacy.
The Americans managed to hit back in the security level as well. After the incidents in the Gulf the US managed to enforce itself on its GCC vassals and sent even more troops to “secure the maritime routes”. That on its own would not be a significant problem, Iran for long views it with uneasy how many ships and troops the US stations on its borders. But the pretext of maritime security is more important, since in this way the Americans can vindicate the right to intrude against Iranian vessels, while also providing cover of Saudi atrocities to go unpunished. Like the incident on 18 October, when an Iranian tanker was hit right of the Saudi coast in the Red Sea, yet, interestingly, this story never got much media attention, nor international reactions. And only a month later came protest movement in Lebanon and Iraq, which eventually even made its way to inside Iran as well. Once again, the Iranian positions are safe. No matter how hard the Americans try, and indeed they managed to take down the Lebanese government and pushed the county deeper into the crisis, it is virtually impossible to crush Ḥizb Allah and its political role. Anyone doubts this should watch Ḥasan Naṣr Allah’s last speech on 13 December. But the recent developments paralyzes this key ally. The same can be said from the Iraqi scene, where it is surely unnerving and consumes a lot of energy that the government was taken down and a new once has to be put together, also the atrocities on Iranian diplomatic facilities, but given the magnitude of the Iranian economic and moral presence in Iraq, not to mention the military and intelligence involvement and the sheer size of local allies, Tehran has not much to worry about Iraq. These added up, the protests inside Iran and the unprecedented level of violence by certain infiltrating elements came as a shocking warning that the assets are spread way to thin. Surely the numbers, sometimes reaching up to hundreds of deaths in the protests are highly exaggerated, the active cells were dismantled within days and almost instantly much bigger crowds were brought to the streets in support of the state, but it is a warning sign that the situation got this far. In this sense the step by the government to raise the fuel’s consumer prizes in Iran might have been a crash test, and the result is not reassuring.
In this context came the Omani initiative on 2 December, delivered directly to Tehran to hold a common Gulf Summit with all sides included, that involving Iran, but also Iraq, to sort out all differences. And while that is not specifically mentioned, it is somewhat deductible that the agenda would include the Qatari folder as well, with all its regional, Iranian and GCC implications. Now, that again is not new on its own. Oman does similar diplomatic mediations a lot, should only Yemen be mentioned here, and during the crisis in the summer Tehran also offered a non-aggression pact to all states in the Gulf, either collectively or one by one. And that eventually lead to a security protocol with the Emirates as well. Nonetheless, there is a new feature in this Omani attempt.
All previous steps were initiated by Iran and always from the position on strength not to allow any appearance of weakness. This time, however, the problems were just piling up when the Omani mediation came and Iran very obviously grasped the opportunity. Only recently, on 20 December President Rōḥānī visited Japan to work out a maritime security mechanism concerning the Gulf, and initiative originally by Tokyo, which was not at all happy by the Americans steps and never joined the Washington’s maritime security coalition. Considering that Shinzō Abe Japanese PM right after the Iranian delegation held talk with Trump, even the Iranian side considers the move as indirect negotiations with the Americans. That is an important notion, because in another channel, but that is exactly what goes on in the Gulf as well.
Can Tehran possibly imagine that in any way, in any summit could convince Riyadh and could reach a viable agreement with it? The chances are minuscule and even in such case the Saudis would not be able to hold onto it if the Americans would disapprove. That is very clear from Tehran. And that is exactly why Tehran goes along with the mediation. Because on 23 December Iranian Foreign Minister Ẓarīf arrived in an unscheduled visit to Oman, by all indications delivering the response to the offer in the beginning of the month, and by all indications that is a positive one.
The Saudi response is noticeably mild, almost supportive. All outlets air the same old accusations and old preconditions for negotiations, most of them are obviously unrealistic, but it sets no new ones, and even agreed to put these conditions to the agenda of a summit. Which is a progress. The main elements of the Saudi conditions are three. First, Iran should renegotiate the JCPOA involving the GCC on a 5+2 basis. Which is unreal, since Tehran does not accept to renegotiate it even with the US, so there is no space of GCC involvement. Second, Iran should negotiate and compromise in its missile program. Which is once again not something Iran discusses it with anyone, always stressing the program’s strictly defensive, or deterrent nature. But realistically, if even indirectly Iran was behind the Aramco hit, was not that the very tool that cornered Riyadh? Thirdly that Iran should not intervene in Arab internal affairs and withdraw its presence and support in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and in the Gulf. Even if Tehran would agree to pull out and cut all its investments, the conditions in these states are completely different and in many cases local elements wish a strong Iranian assistance. So it is not entirely an Iranian decision. And even by complying to these conditions Iran would get nothing in return. These are conditions clearly set to keep up the tension, however, they are so broad – except the JCPOA – that it is easy to achieve progress in them.
Should anyone doubt the Saudi readiness for talks now, should compare their reactions to the recent Kuala Lumpur Summit, which we will deal with shortly. The message is clear. Riyadh does not want to appear yielding, but now ready to listen. And there are a number of reasons for that. First of all, as we will see, the Saudis try to settle the Qatari folder and reposition themself both internally, both with Egypt, where they lost most of their role to the Emirates. The Emirati moves recently, especially those of Abū Zabī somewhat unnerved the Saudi old guard around the king. The lords of Abū Zabī in the last few years pushed the Saudi Crown Prince to a number of adventures, which all brought catastrophic results. While in the meantime it took all the spoils of war and took the three most important matters into its own hand. These are the presiding on the Gulf matters, being the central partner of Egypt, and handling the Gulf/Arab-Israeli normalization-alliance package. In the Gulf it is clear that much of the problem with Qatar was caused by Doha’s will to conduct a foreign policy of it own, which is still standing, but it was Abū Zabī, which lead the campaign against it for selfish reasons. In the meantime it took over the exceptional partnership with Egypt, a mirror of the Qatari-Turkish tandem, and Riyadh practically lost its role here. As for the Arab-Israeli folder, some time ago not only the Qataris warned that the “deal of the century” is about to be accepted by some Gulf members, hinting the Emirates, but recently the Emirates’ Foreign Minister himself clearly hinted that and very warm conversation developed between him and Netanyahu on Twitter. Now, considering that in Yemen the Emiratis convinced the Crown Prince to move in, only to pull out and leave the whole problem on the Saudis, after they secured their most important gains, these steps now worry Riyadh. It is a good reason for revenge in the good old tribal fashion, but also to take steps to curb the Emirati influence. For that calm environment is crucial, and that far they can even reach with the Americans.
So it seems that the peace process in the Gulf is not likely to bring groundbreaking results, both major sides are ready to talk, for different reasons. While the smaller partners, like Oman and Kuwait, are ready to mediate in order to prevent further escalation.
Qatar on the agenda
Since mid-2017 Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates are blockading Qatar, which caused initial shock and hardship, even had the prospect of military intervention, but at the end only solidified the already developing Qatari-Turkish alliance. Since than, Qatar was doing relatively fine, regained most of its economic positions and with skillful tactics kept all its enemies at bay. Recently, with the sudden Turkish intervention in Libya, which is so far only an offer, but Turkey already transports its Syrian mercenaries to Libya, that even managed to hit Egypt.
So far Cairo was happy to see its sometimes irritating, but always generous Gulf donors quarreling with each other, and kept relatively far from the Qatari folder. This move, however, is a very unnerving one, because the Qatari financial support is clear behind the move, the Turks deploy those very Jihadi fanatics from Idlib to its borders Cairo so feared and chased in the Sinai for years. And while doing so, Turkey is on the winner side now. It is true that Turkey meddles in a number of Arab countries, but like in Syria or Iraq, that was done against the international norm and in the expense of the legal government. Not in Libya, however, where not it supports the legal government, and very obviously against Egypt. A move very difficult to counter.
Qatar on it own used the time well, secured itself, but also did not boost its trade with Iran, to avoid further accusations. And it is true that imports from Iran skyrocketed after the blockade, but most of the goods are coming from Turkey, and Qatar is cautious not to violate the Americans sanctions, even while keeping good relations. And still, the biggest trade partner of Iran in the Gulf is the UAE. Doha kept is friendship with Iran to diplomatics, not to criticize Iran in any way, have regular meetings, only to keep this vital route open, but not going too far with it. It is somewhat curious from this position why is Doha so eager to rejoin the GCC normally and end the blockade. Regardless of its futility and little affect, it is an obstacle, both for its citizens and its businesses. Ending the blockade will make a significant progress and free space to maneuver diplomatically, even distancing from the inconvenient Irani friendship, and it would surely score a diplomatic victory. On the other side, however, especially that it is not achieving anything, both from the Saudi and the Egyptian side, we can see that a settlement seems more pressing now.
As so many times in history, a major process starts with symbolic steps, and the realm of sports is an excellent field for that. On 26 November the 24th Arabian Gulf football Cup started, which was hosted by Doha. Interestingly, the Saudi, the Emirati and the Bahraini teams were present, which instantly opened up guesses whether this is the first step for a reconciliation, given these states for the first time broke the isolation. It is probably a very positive sign that the Omani team won the tournament. The rapprochement was denied that time, but as we saw earlier, this was soon followed by an invitation by King Salmān to Emir Tamīm personally to the following GCC Summit.
As we saw earlier that failed to materialize in anything substantial, but the very fact the the meetings took place and the Qatari PM held personal negotiations with King Salmān, along with a number of small details are all indications that the times are changing and Riyadh is ready to accept Omani or Kuwait mediation, or even engage in direct talks with Doha and mend fences. If that so, the reasons are within the Saudi leadership itself and its suspicion over Abū Zabī.
It is, however, noticeable that the Americans are paving this way now, as Trump reportedly kept the Emirati leaderships far from the summit. It is noticeable that this move, just like the indirect talks with Iran via Japan, Pakistan, or Oman come not from the State Department, but from Trump himself. There is a will to close the Gulf’s internal struggle now, which is not even really comprehended in Washington. By Trump that works to ease tension before the re-election campaign, while for the establishment to close ranks against Iran and facilitate the very Israeli-Arab alliance we mentioned before.
While Qatar’s main point is to isolate the Emirati main opponent from the Saudis and regain a free hand, the Saudi’s main wish it to regain control, at least in the Gulf. Because the initiatives in the last 3-8 years were highly unsuccessful. The positive steps, even the mild support, are great indications that something is changing for the better in the region, even if a major peace process is less realistic.
Still not learning
These are, however, might not just be the signs of lessons learned. Though it might just be as easily possible that the chains binding Riyadh to Washington prove themselves to be much stronger, and however the old guard tries it just cannot break the deadlock. Or both being true to some extent, the Saudis have to make huge favors to the US, even in the most self-destructive way, to settle at least some of the pending matters, which gives a pattern where the steps are so contradictory that it is almost impossible to make sense out of it.
Recently Saudi Arabia not only deployed a number of oil engineers, Saudis and Egyptians alike, to Syria’s biggest al-‘Umar oilfield in Dayr az-Zūr Province all working for Aramco, but sent tens of combat troops as well. Which is a huge mistake for themselves, but easy to read the reasons. Right after the huge blunders in Yemen, where they mostly put fierce local fighters in the front line, and still getting almost annihilated, it is incredible how could could the Saudi leadership put front troops against the battle-hardened Syrian troops, right at the time when it’s offensive in Idlib is gaining momentum. Meaning soon enough these Saudi soldiers will have to stand their ground against Syrian troops, officially or not. A task they are clearly not up to. A trajectory clearly visible as recently even the American troops were attacked in the Syrian oilfields, meaning Syrians will soon make this occupation very unpleasant. All that in conditions where they cannot secure the supply line, making their soldiers absolutely dependent on the American support, how just now abandoned the Kurds in the same field. However, making Aramco involved in a clear violation of international norms and complicit in large scale theft puts their biggest asset in the risk of international repercussions. From which, once again, only the American support can save them. And the fact that the news first came out of the Turkish Anadolu Agency shows that he move hit the nerve of Ankara, possibly even more than that of Damascus.
The other sign of utter Saudi dependence is their fury over the Kuala Lumpur Summit of the biggest Islamic countries between 19 and 21 December, most encouraged by Malaysia. The summit among many topics as tackling Islamophobia and promoting bigger cooperation, aims to create an alternative economic model ditching the dollar in trade. In this regard Iranian steps for cryptocurrency were highly applauded. The summit, and that is probably the best scale of the trajectory’s vision, managed to bring together the leaders of Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia and even more, at least 250 representatives from 52 countries, regardless of their considerably different political, economical and diplomatic circumstances. But the Saudi fury was clear about the event, officially naming that it is a circumventing measure against the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) under Saudi influence, and they even pressured Pakistan to refrain from the meeting.
The two events might look as they are miles apart, in fact very much show the same reality. It is true that a substitute for the dollar, especially between Muslim states – as this is the first layer of the vision – is threat to the Saudi petrodollar system, it is clear that the most unnerved party is the US. Which uses the Saudis to sabotage such steps as early on as possible, though a greater involvement in it could have benefits for Riyadh as well. Much the same way, putting troops on the ground in Syria and involving their most prestigious company in grand scale theft is not a Saudi interest, but only serves as a live cover for the American attempt the secure their presence and deny the means of recovery from Damascus. That is why they recently bombed Syrian oil facilities. The Americans well know that soon enough they will face irregular and very costly resistance, which with growing Russian and Turkish diplomatic pressures will be unbearable. And for that they wanted to bring in European allies for long, only most of them denied this humiliating role. Except the French, but even Paris does not admit this role fully officially. Therefore they put the Saudis on ground, making them deal with the logistics and possibly pay the price for that, knowing that the spoils of war via Aramco will get to them. Not only because Aramco is now brought to the market, so in time American interests will grow in it, but also because the money gained this way by Riyadh can be regained by newer and newer arms sales. And if there should be a scandal about the stolen oil eventually that will burn on the Saudis.
All in all, yes, there are hopeful signs of normalization by the Saudis, as they try to settle at least some of their futile quests. But at the same time, while they are – trying – to get out from one pit, they are so dependent on Washington at this point that they are digging a new wormhole. Which is a very grim prospect for them, but the growing attempts by other major players to cooperate and find alternatives in the grand scale is a more promising development for the next year. Or the next years to come.