Last week we saw that whatever happened in Fuğayra it certainly scared and infuriated Riyadh. And if the message was by the al-Ḥūtīs, they keep sending very similar ones as they started to target Saudi airports. And now they send new messages that unless Saudi steps back and ease the siege on Yemen there will be new surprises soon. But even before that war really started to escalate in a way most unpleasant for Saudi Arabia, there was something in the air hard to grasp. Either unprecedented determination, or long not seen panic by the Saudis. Otherwise, why would the Saudis convey emergency meetings right to Mecca in the last days of Ramadan, which usually the most calm period of the Islamic year? Especially if Ramadan is in the summer, like now, since it tires everyone so much that life needs a week or so start once again.
The stake was clear, as there was not one meeting in Mecca, but three different ones in three different levels. The first one was a GCC summit to gear up to an Arab summit, which would lead up to an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit. The intention was clear. As Riyadh, right or wrong, blamed Iran for Fuğayra and a number of other unpleasant developments in the region – casually forgetting its own handiwork – it wanted to bring together firm and decisive common stand against Iran under its own leadership. That project, however, served another double folded agenda as well. If Riyadh managed to achieve that, it would have put itself in a position of leadership or guidance. At the same time, while stabilizing Saudi moral position – and intimidating all who disagrees – Riyadh could derail attention from the upcoming Bahrain Economic Summit with the Americans about a comprehensive peace plan in the region. Which is for months simply dubbed as the “deal of the century”, where the Gulf countries would achieve the formally unimaginable, recognition of Israel and making it an integral part of Middle East diplomatic relations. It is easy to understand that such a step – which is only a matter of time to happen – can only be made if there is an aggravated climate utterly busy with something else.
It also would have given an opportunity to the ailing king Salmān to regain control in the country from his son and do some crisis management, pulling the car back before the abyss. But the three meeting actually became a series of humiliating failures. Like a madman in a casino betting three times on the same number three times in a row with more and more money and eventually losing it all. The level of defeat is in fact so big that only the friendly Western media’s silence and the general ignorance toward such meeting stop Riyadh to be ridiculed. And the results are only yet to be revealed soon. But what really happened in these meetings, went beyond what most could expect.
The GCC level
As a comprehensive crisis management there is something very logical in starting it in a GCC level, since that is scene Riyadh generally has the biggest following. However, in the last two years Saudi Arabia by Emirati initiative actually made the situation very confused, which makes this GCC summit actually quite illogical. By the time the summit kicked off on 30 May there had been two years since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, with the support of a number of Arab states posed a moral, economic and transportation siege on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and airing radical sentiments by its media giant, al-Jazeera. These states demanded serious concessions in Qatari foreign policy and the shut down of al-Jazeera. That in practical terms meant yielding to Saudi-Emirati demands and giving up independent foreign policy. At the early stages of the offensive even military intervention was in the air, only to be evaded by Turkish and Pakistani troops stationing in Qatar. But the even bigger help came from Iran, as it gave a green light to its two neighbors to come to Doha’s aid, and opening its ports and foreign trade to it. That very soon resulted in the complete exchange of Saudi and Emirati imports to Turkish and Iranian goods. Regardless of the initial shock Qatar actually managed to cope well with the siege and by now pretty much regained its diplomatic freedom. In this sense the Cold War in the GCC made Saudi’s position harder, since the ball is clearly on their field of they want to normalize relations, but they managed to achieve none of their former demands. So if they want to end this crisis they have to admit defeat in one way or another.
This move actually proved to be devastating to the Gulf’s general economic conditions and to the future of the GCC. Even ten years ago the GCC was by far the most promising Arab regional cooperation attempt with a common free market and common currency in the horizon. Have these states managed to achieve that, they would have created a very substantial economic, diplomatic and even military center, which jointly would have been able to guide other Arab states. It would have had the potential to finally be a counterweight to other regional powers, like Turkey, Iran or Israel. Since 2013 onwards, however, we could witness the gradual disintegration of this ambitious plan, with the military occupation of Bahrain, the forced regime change in Qatar in the summer of 2013 and finally the siege which we see now. And it should be noted that this Cold War split the GCC more than it seems, since Kuwait for some time tried to facilitate a dialogue, but having failed to achieve anything tangible it slowly started to distance itself from the Saudi lead way. And Oman was even more clear that it has no wish to purse animosity. Therefore not only Qatar fell out from the line, but even Oman and Kuwait as well, to some extent, and the GCC became a completely theoretical entity.
In this light finally conveying a GCC summit is a very logical step, if Riyadh wishes to mend fences and bring about a joint standing against Iran, at least in the closest of its realm. In such a meeting the first and most urgent point should be to solved, the matter of Qatar in one way or another. Otherwise, how could Qatar sit on a meeting in and with a country, which regards it a traitor of the common cause and a terrorist supporting state? This dilemma clearly showed as Qatar was represented not by its monarch, but by it PM, ‘Abd Allah ibn Nāṣir Āl Tānī. In the opening day there was even some hope in the air as Saudi Crown Prince even shook hands with the Qatari PM. But in an almost incomprehensible way the Saudi leadership would have none of that and behaved like there wasn’t even any economic war or diplomatic struggle in the GCC, and the summit’s full agenda only concentrated on Iran.
To the surprise of Riyadh, at least officially, Qatar had serious reservations on this step and ‘Abd Allah ibn Nāṣir clearly states that the Irani move, which offered fair negotiations and non-aggression pacts to the GCC states deserve a hearing and should be studied. It further pointed out that there should be a common standing in an Arab level not only towards Iran, but in all regional matters. Plain and simple, Qatar does not wish a move against Iran and under no circumstances will join any aggression. Won’t even accept a common statement against Tehran. The GCC did adopt a resolution against Iran, though in a softened tone, but Qatar clearly opposed it, making it easier for Kuwait and Oman to accept is, but show good will to Tehran by downplaying it. And indeed if the Riyadh and Abū Zabī wanted to go the Mecca Arab League summit with a joint standing it certainly failed. Saudi and Emirati leaders were infuriated and lashed out against Qatar, but Qatar defended its positions that they were offered no chance of negotiations and the draft resolution was already written before the meeting.
Saudis might be offended by this now, as they vehemently lashed out, but realistically what other choice Qatar had? For them the most crucial matter was to discuss and possibly lift the sanctions against it. Having not done so, how could Doha take any step against Iran? If they did so, without any offer of reconciliation from the sieging parties, they would have shot themselves in the foot cutting their economic lifeline for nothing. But even apart from the these considerations, even on moral grounds we have to admit that Qatar is right. After all, how could they be expected to take a stand against a county which showed them good will – for calculated interest – in their most desperate hour with the states which hold them as a terrorist country? How could any joint GCC policy be formulated if there is a war amongst them? So it was only natural that Qatar not only pointed out dissatisfaction in a GCC, but even on a higher, Arab League level. For some reason, however, Riyadh still behaved like nothing happened and push the same agenda on the Arab League summit, also in Mecca at the same time.
The Arab League Level
Practically the same scenario repeated itself, but this time Riyadh suffered even more humiliating defeats. Many members either did not represent themselves, or only in a symbolic level. Like Morocco, with which Riyadh also had troubled relations recently. Many tacitly advised restraint, but to no avail. At the end it was Iraq, which not only voted down the Mecca summit’s final declaration, but openly expressed that it is against it and has nothing to do with it. Which was very logical seeing how delicate relations Baghdad has with Tehran. Not only that all Iraqi governments since 2003 were Shia dominated, therefore naturally more understanding towards Iran, but since the war with Dā‘iš and the virtual collapse of the Iraqi Army in 2014 Baghdad is dependent on Iranian support. Much more than that, Iraqi PM ‘Abd al-Mahdī does not have a dominant party behind him, which makes him more of a technocrat caretaker leader. Having failed to oppose plans against Iran would not only have diminished his support, but would have rendered his recent mediation between the US and Iran a diplomatic bluff. And has ‘Abd al-Mahdī failed to see clear, he was reminded harshly what is the general perception of these meetings are. Religious leaders, like Muḥammad al-Hāliṣī openly called the triple Mecca summit as “summit of wretchedness and rascaldom”. Pointing out that the war desired by the Saudis against Iran is actually based on hatred against the Shia and it is already taking its toll on Iraqis. As we dealt with it recently, if a war comes between Iran and the US that will inevitably drag in Iraq, which will be caught between the two camps. As both have troops and bases in Iraq now. And the Iraqi society as well will split once again.
Therefore it was only natural that ‘Abd al-Mahdī as a step of self defense opposed the meeting. Was he proved anything shorter than that he would have been removed from office by now, which would have started the political struggle in Iraq once again to form a new government. This is firmly proven by what happened with Lebanon.
Lebanon was represented in the Arab League summit and even went along with Saudi line, not airing any concern. Right after that Ḥasan Naṣr Allah, chairman of the Ḥizb Allah lashed out against that stance in his Jerusalem Day speech. The result clearly shows now, as still well ahead of the still rumored Bahrain economic summit Lebanese Foreign Minister, Ğubrān Bāsīl states that Lebanon would join the meeting.
The Arab League summit was much cleared, where Riyadh and Abū Zabī gave their full attention to Iran, and tried to prove to fellow Arab states how dangerous Iran is by the recent attacks by the Yemenis. That fixation was, however, much more devastating to their standings as they realized. First of all what they did, was clear explanation how they started a war against a fellow Arab state, but by now failing so desperately that they need support. If anyone missed to see clear before, now the Saudis proved the case against themselves clearly. Which is in itself remarkable. But more precarious the final statement had only vague and symbolic mentions on Jerusalem and the Ğulān, clearly Arab lands by any international consensus, which were gifted away by Trump. Not addressing these matters not only made Riyadh’s attempt to lead the Arab nation ridiculous, but it showed that Salmān cannot even criticize the US. He is simply that dependent on American support now.
By the time last round, the OIC meeting commenced it was clear that the Qatari and the Iraqi objections defeated the Emirati-Saudi attempt to deliver a firm threat to Iran, and prove a case in international forums.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, thought has a more than fifty years old history has still yet to prove itself as a real function organization. In theory it is the biggest pan-Islamic forum, and by far the most recognized and less controversial one, so far it is more of a consultative forum to create a common standing in Islamic matters. In that sense it embodies a large range of smaller and more effective cooperations.
As we saw, contrary to the claimed Saudi and Emirati attempts, the GCC and Arab League meeting were not the foundations of strong Saudi message, but they aggravated the Saudis. These were bad enough omens, and frustration was clearly visible as once again reports suggested major opposition. Only three days before the GCC meeting in Mecca gearing up to the other two, on 27 May a letter to king Salmān became public by Erdoğan’s former advisor and deputy chairman of AKP’s foreign committee, and otherwise well known academic, Yasin Aktay. In that, which can even be understood as a form of official advise from Ankara, as Erdoğan was not present in meeting, Aktay advised that regardless his reservations on his son, he only has the best wishes for Saudi Arabia. But for the kingdom to survive and flourish it must change a number of its policies and radically. And among a number of matters the aggression against its neighbors and the fostering of the deal of the century are the biggest possible mistakes, which might eventually seal the faith of the Saudis. After all, putting all faith in the hands of the Israelis is the biggest mistake. The IOC summit started bad enough with all these preludes when similar signals came from a country Riyadh expected the firmest support from, Pakistan. Right when the summit kicked of on 1 June Pakistani PM ‘Imrān Hān managed in infuriate the Saudi press, which regarded his behavior toward the king Salmān disrespectful in the welcoming ceremony. Following vehement Saudi protest Hān simply withdrew previous request for support for a number of development projects promised in ibn Salmān’s recent visit to Pakistan. Some days later rumors came out that in a side discussion Hān firmly told ibn Salmān that they want to drag his country into war with Iran, which is not capable nor willing to do. These might be rumors, but anyone actually watches ‘Imrān Hān’s speech in the summit can spot there might be much into it. Since while he did not even vaguely mention anything which can be understood as criticism of Iran, he had a firm message that this forum should address atrocities against Islam and Islamic values. And there were unmistakeable signals about Jerusalem and the deal of the century.
What was Qatar for the GCC summit and Iraq to the Arab League’s, that was Pakistan to the IOC meeting. Which is an ever bigger slap to the Saudi-Emirati policy. Ibn Salmān not only relies heavily in Pakistani military support in his Yemeni war, his already failed attempt to create a so called “Islamic NATO”, and the kingdom’s still infant nuclear program, but he personally signed off $6+20 billion to Islamabad in his recent visit. For which he surely expected firmer anti-Iran policy, at least tacitly. But once again the same thing happened, and so very predictable it was. Pakistan might be populous and powerful, but its economy is ravaged by debt and the social problems are tremendous. Facing a fearsome foe as India is bad enough, but fighting an also formidable state like Iran is way to much. Especially that Islamabad practically has no interest in Iran. Much rather it is in its interest to have good relations with it, as trade is mutually beneficial and cooperation on Afghanistan is vital. It might turn a blind eye to the UAE financing terrorist groups like Ğayš al-‘Adl to perform attacks on Iran in the border area, but the last attack was way to big and now Islamabad seriously wants ties to be normalized. But support against Iran is even more unrealistic from Pakistan, as Tehran actually took Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir in a number of occasions, while Saudi did nothing. So facing India, why would Pakistan take efforts against its possibly best and friendliest neighbor? And can anything be more alarming to Riyadh to hear the same message from Turkey and Pakistan right at the same time?
But what was missing in the GCC and in the Arab League summit, after two weeks of negotiations was finally achieved. A joint statement, which did indeed, though vaguely condemned Iran for interfering in Arab states internal matters. More significant that the declaration connected the security of the Saudi state with the security of the Muslim community as a whole, which is quite a victory for the kingdom’s moral standing. But the real emphasis lay on Palestine, far away from the Iran matter. That is the most ridiculous part of the final declaration, as it stated that any state moving its embassy to Jerusalem must be boycotted by the members states. That so far only means a handful of states with the US being the only significant one. And that is the real moral failure of the IOC since it reaffirmed the moral eminence of a state that is the closest and most dependent on the US, which not only opens scorns it, but should be boycotted now by the final declaration. Knowing the level of cooperation and reliance of the Saudi-Emirati axis, but even Jordan and Egypt included it is rather curious how would any such boycott actually work. So curious that it much rather seems like gesture not to be taken seriously, since if it was, than at least the Bahrain summit would have been cancelled by now. Yet it is still very much under preparation.
Salmān clearly failed in this triple meeting in a number of levels. It did not manage to create a common standing against Iran, nor create a fertile atmosphere to the Bahrain summit. He also did not manage to reverse his son’s policies, since none of the problems he created became solved. None were any seriously addressed even. Quite the contrary, it opened up most of the old wounds and troubles in the region and put them all on the table on plain sight.
Having a GCC summit, which failed to address its biggest rift and to lash out against a member which does not want to join a statement against the very country which saved it from its own allies’ aggression is something truly extraordinary. To do the same on with Iraq on the Arabic and with Pakistan and Turkey in the pan-Islamic level is even more puzzling. And to neglect the most pressing needs in every level, the matter of Qatar in the GCC or the offer of non-aggression pacts, the matters of Jerusalem, Ğulān and the West Bank now in the Arab League fundamentally discredits these councils. How can a power center be so unrealistic in its calculations to expect members to act against their own interest and plunge themself into a conflict they have little to do with just to save them from their own mistakes? King Salmān himself being away from the limelight in recent years might be so out of touch of reality. So can be his son, or he might just be just so reckless. But to see that from someone so cunning as ibn Zāyid pretty much eliminates the possibility of lack in clarity. If all that did not happen by chance or by mistake than we have to suppose that to a certain extent it was calculated. So, what could have been the expectation?
Could Riyadh and Abū Zabī realistically assume that Qatar will stand against Iran, which would equals to suicide? Could they realistically assume that Arab ranks will join against Iran, while many of them have vital ties to it now, and most others have no serious problems with Tehran? By any calculations would they view Iranian aggression – if that idea is even accepted – against the Gulf itself far from being innocent in the struggle more pressing than the matters of Libya, Iraq and Syria, the now still unclear faith of Algeria and Sudan, and top of all the future of Palestine? Right at the time when Israel is having never before seen inroads to the Arab world from Tunisian to the Gulf by massively annexing Arab lands? The response is clearly no. But what it achieved was to cause massive confusion and prevent any joint stance against the much more pressing matter. When the once most respected Arab newspaper, the al-Ahrām dedicates a whole editorial to argue that Qatar is the second Israel, while Iranian Foreign Minister Ẓarīf uses the same title to the UAE, we can clearly see level of confusion. Since while chasing the second Israel, everyone seems to forget the first one. Should we remember that these two states, Egypt and Iran are not even really at odds with each other. The foreseen normalization of Israel into the Arab world and the abandonment of Palestine is really at stake now. In that sense, derailing attention in a very game changing time is a tremendous favor not as much for Trump, but for the real power base around him. The defeats on its prestige and on the prestige of these common forums could have been calculated. And since they are dying anyways for year, like we could see in the Tunis Arab League summit, actually not much harm was done. Such a loss is acceptable. Was it not, Riyadh and its allies would have done more even before to save them.
The result is that Saudi Arabia, but even more so the UAE and the states under their influence put their faith even more than ever before to the hands of their Western allies. Because if the naturalization of Israel does take place, the US will more conveniently rely on it in its Middle Eastern policies and – at least by Saudi calculations – only those not perish who stick with the new realities. The matter of the Bahrain summit is exactly this. Will the Middle East accept a new reality without any Palestine and Israel as a legitimized player in the arena? That shall be seen, but the last time this dilemma, reliance on self determination, or on Western good will was raised it was the struggle between Iraq and Egypt over the Baghdad pact. And sticking to the Baghdad Pact meant the downfall the Iraqi monarchy. In this sense it is urgent for many regional states to stop the Gulf maneuvers, as it was very clear in Mecca. But with the precarious inner conditions of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE now, it is even more pressing whether they will facilitate a cataclysmic change in the regional reality, or they are running to their own death. And if the latter is about to happen, is the US willing, or capable to save them?
In this regard, the next few weeks and the Bahrain summit will be vital for the survival of the Gulf and the Middle East as we now them today.