Saudi Arabia and Iran after the summits of discontent

Saudi Arabia hosted three summits last week — a Gulf, an Arab and an Islamic one — with one common goal: Confront and isolate Iran. All other urgent issues in the region, from the ongoing decimation of Yemen to the implosion of Libya to the daily bombings in Syria and the worsening occupation of Palestine, all had to take a backseat to the Saudi-UAE escalation against the Islamic Republic.

By the end of the meetings, Saudi efforts to put diplomatic pressure on Tehran paid off, at least on paper. The final communique of the emergency Gulf and Arab summits condemned Iranian interference in Arab affairs. The closing statement of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) fell short of isolating Iran, but it did condemn recent attacks on Saudi and Emirati oil tankers and upheld their right to defend themselves.

How important is this diplomatic onslaught against Iran and how will it affect the tensions in the Gulf and Middle East regions? Here are three possible readings.

Muslim leaders pose for a group picture ahead of Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca, on June 1, 2019 AP Photo/Amr Nabil

A Saudi success

According to some Arab circles, the summits propelled the Saudi monarchy back to top, as it emerged as a central power in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

After a number of recent debacles, including the blockade on Qatar and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, undermined its international standing, Saudi Arabia finally succeeded in reformulating the Gulf, Arab and Islamic positions with a new focus on the danger of Iran, which in King Salman’s words «has been supporting terrorism for decades and threatening security and stability with the objective of expanding influence and domination».

This reading was adopted in certain Western circles, which claim that Saudi Arabia has largely succeeded in «uniting the Arabs against Iran», as the summits marked «the re-emergence of Saudi Arabia from pariah to regional power broker again». If Saudi Arabia is emerging more powerful in the zero-sum regional power politics of the greater Middle East, it follows that Iran has become weaker.

Indeed, Saudi hegemony was apparent in the summits’ proceedings. Riyadh’s manipulation of the agenda priorities was so apparent and so preposterous that it prompted some to ridicule its «attend-one-get-two-free» stunt in Mecca.

The Saudis left little to chance or debate, imposing pre-prepared final statements on the Gulf and Arab attendees, according to Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who emphasised his country’s reservations on both statements. Baghdad also rejected the Arab summit’s final communique. Damascus, which wasn’t invited, did so in absentia.

But regardless of whether the Saudi position represents the majority of the Arab leaders or not, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt emerged stronger and more committed to lead the Arab League in the absence of any other power centre; the same applies to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

They certainly appear emboldened at the very least. As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told the Arab summit: «It is time to renew discussions on joint Arab defence mechanisms.»

But does this mean Riyadh has the support to lead the Arabs to confrontation or war against Iran?

Arab irrelevance

Contrary to the official Saudi claim, Riyadh failed to get the OIC to condemn Tehran directly in the final communique. Iran was not mentioned in the two articles on the Gulf crisis.

In the GCC and Arab summits, where Riyadh did succeed to single out Iran by name, the condemnation carries little to no strategic weight. The GCC and the Arab League are more divided and weaker than ever, thanks in no small part to Saudi manipulation of their agendas to serve its own narrow interests and those of its allies, as was demonstrated once again last week. Riyadh may have succeeded in formulating the final statements to suit its designs for the region, but these warnings or condemnations are hardly noticed, let alone heeded.

The Arabs may have had certain strategic weight in the past, but the Gulf wars and the crackdown on popular upheavals have drastically debilitated much of the Arab region, rendering it more of a humanitarian burden than a powerful regional decision-maker.

Moreover, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian hostility towards Iran (as well as Turkey) and towards democracy (as well as the Muslim Brotherhood), meant everything and everyone else have taken the backseat to the detriment of Arab peace and security.

In that way, condemning Iran over interference in Yemen and Syria and blaming it for the attacks in the Gulf causes little if any ripples in regional and international arenas. Sadly, the same applies to their calls for peace based on two state solutions in Israel/Palestine.

Issuing condemnation with no power and no strategy to back them up is like issuing bad checks. Saudi Arabia might have presided over tidy summits that rubber-stamped its final communique, but the end result is no more than a collection of PR stunts that neither alters the balance of power, nor changes matters on the ground.

This is especially the case considering that even Egypt’s el-Sisi refrained from mentioning Iran in his speeches, despite his distaste for the Ayatollahs. This signals Egyptian unwillingness to support an escalation to war against Tehran.

Does that mean tensions will continue to rise and ebb, with no end in sight?

Wrongheaded strategy

Regardless of whether Saudi Arabia’s efforts behind the summits are, as argued above, successful, irrelevant or successful but irrelevant, they are wrongheaded. The Saudi obsession with Iran only deepened the Gulf crisis and gave ammunition to outside powers to interfere in the region.

Arab leaders are right to put Iran on notice and try to restrain its destabilising activities in the Arab world, but egging on Washington against Tehran is not the solution. It may, in fact, become their biggest problem.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia outsourcing its Iran problem to Washington will prove disastrous for the region. The summits Riyadh just hosted provide President Donald Trump with ample leverage, if he decides to further exploit the tensions with Tehran for strategic or even personal benefit ahead of the presidential elections.

The Arabs’ only effective answer to Iran’s regional ambition is and has always been: negotiations from a position of strength. But that requires real, not fake unity.

It also requires addressing the huge challenges facing the Arab world, in particular, its armed conflicts. But Riyadh and its junior partners have proven to be part of the problem, not the solution. They continue to wage war in Yemen, fight a proxy war in Libya, and lend their support to the new military rulers in Sudan, as they crack down on a peaceful revolution.

In fact, Riyadh has proven ready, even enthusiastic, to do whatever it must and ally with whomever it needs, in order to safeguard and expand its narrow regime interests. Today, this means bullying, blackmailing and bribing Arab countries into submission, and allying with outside forces, namely the US and Israel, to the detriment of Iranians, Palestinians and Arabs across the region.

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