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Mecca emergency meetings: Without embracing real dialogue, Saudi Arabia will only get 'verbal solidarity' Open in fullscreen

Imad K. Harb

Mecca emergency meetings: Without embracing real dialogue, Saudi Arabia will only get 'verbal solidarity'

Saudi King Salman called for two emergency meetings [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 May, 2019

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Analysis: Given GCC disunity and lack of readiness among Arab League states, it is doubtful that the emergency meetings will satisfy Saudi leaders' hopes in a full-fledged entente against Iran.

On May 18, Saudi King Salman called for two emergency meetings for the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and Arab League leaders to be held in Mecca on May 30. The meetings will discuss tensions in the Arabian Gulf and mid-May attacks on oil vessels in the Arabian Sea and on Saudi installations.

Mecca will also host the 14th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] on May 31.

Saudi Arabia is trying to rally the Arab world behind its call for confronting Iran which it accuses of being behind the attacks despite the Islamic Republic's repeated denials.

While concerned about the security of oil shipments, the kingdom is most worried about dangerous drone strikes by the Yemeni Houthis whom it has been fighting since March 2015.

Read also: Middle East drone wars heat up in Yemen

The Houthis have over the last two weeks attacked a Saudi pipeline that carries oil from the east to an exporting facility on the Red Sea in the west. They also have reportedly conducted airstrikes on regional airports in Saudi Najran and Jizan close to the Saudi-Yemeni border.

These and previous attacks have seriously raised the stakes for Riyadh that cannot appear to be weak in its challenge to Tehran. But the Saudi call for the meetings comes at an inauspicious moment in GCC and Arab politics.

The Saudi call for the meetings comes at an inauspicious moment in GCC and Arab politics

Disunity in the GCC

Qatar, a member of the GCC, only received an invitation a week later, as if it was an afterthought. A Qatari Emiri fleet plane flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a foreign ministry official on it, likely to discuss the meetings.*

Read more here: Qatar Emiri plane 'lands in Saudi Arabia for first time since Gulf crisis'

Qatar has been ostracised since June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – along with Egypt, blockaded by land, sea, and accused of supporting terrorism and cooperating with Iran against them. Qatar has denied the accusations.

Two years later, this ostracism and blockade continue to prevent collective GCC action necessary for facing common challenges. The last two members of the GCC, Oman and Kuwait, have remained neutral in the dispute; but they too worry about the current and long-term repercussions of the rift.

All three, however, have made it clear that they see no overarching strategic benefit in supporting a confrontational stance against Iran.

Considering the stakes of what a confrontation might bring to the Gulf, it is not hard to see the wisdom of a cautious approach to the Iranian challenge moving forward.

Tensions only increase feelings of mistrust and heighten uncertainty, in the process exacerbating the security dilemma of all Gulf states. To be sure, a confrontation in the Gulf is most likely destined to be a quagmire for Iran, the GCC, and the United States if the Trump Administration's hawks are not dissuaded from their warmongering.  

To be sure, a confrontation in the Gulf is most likely destined to be a quagmire for Iran, the GCC, and the United States if the Trump Administration's hawks are not dissuaded from their warmongering

Arab world too weak to help

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia may be hoping for more support than the Arab world can deliver at this time. Yes, many Arab countries will declare solidarity with the kingdom; perhaps some more enthusiastically then others.

But it is unlikely that any state – other than the UAE and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia's erstwhile allies – will be ready to offer much more than lip service. Indeed, if Saudi Arabia is looking to invoke the Arab League's Treaty of Common Defense and Economic Cooperation of 1950 to rally Arab forces to respond to Iran's threats, it is most likely to be disappointed.

From Syria to Morocco, the wider Arab world today is beset by myriad challenges that will lead to deeper troubles if not quickly and decisively addressed.

Some countries – Syria, Yemen, and Libya – are experiencing the wrenching agonies of civil war, domestic instability, and strife that have killed hundreds of thousands and made millions homeless.

Saudi Arabia may be hoping for more support than the Arab world can deliver at this time

Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan remain wary of each other; the first pair over the Western Sahara and the second over the Nile water and the Halayeb Triangle. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries are also engaged in an over-the-border war with Yemen's Houthi rebels.

Algeria and Sudan are witnessing persistent public protests demanding transition from authoritarian rule. Finally, and because of domestic considerations, Iraq and Lebanon are unlikely to partake of any plan to challenge Iran.

Moreover, the invocation of Article 2 of the Arab League's defence agreement quickly runs into the problems of lack of coordination between Arab militaries and disagreement on objectives among Arab leaders.

The last attempt at forming a joint Arab force was in 2015 when Arab states meeting in Egypt decided only on the 'principle' of creating a 40,000-strong contingent of elite troops supported by air power and armour. But no such force has been established.

The Trump Administration's call for and work to help establish a so-called Arab NATO has fizzled. Even Egypt – arguably the most consequential military actor in such an entente – has decided that it will not join such a force.

Furthermore, many Arab leaders do not see the wisdom of a confrontation with Iran, as is the case with those of Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, of the Levantine countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and of the North African nations of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.  

Besides, Saudi Arabia's record of coming to the rescue of Arab states outside the GCC is poor. It has only deployed its troops against challenges to GCC states.

Saudi Arabia is trying to rally the Arab world behind its call for confronting Iran

In 1990-1991 it participated in limited fashion in the military campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces and in 2011 it sent troops to Bahrain to prop up the monarchy when it was challenged by Manama's version of the Arab Spring.

Given disunity in the GCC and the lack of readiness among Arab League states, it is doubtful that the May 30 emergency meetings will satisfy Saudi leaders' hopes in a full-fledged entente against Iran.

Instead, the meetings are likely to merely produce a communique criticising what has become common knowledge of Iran's malign activities in the Gulf and the wider region.

A better course would arguably be a discussion in Mecca of a plan for an Arab dialogue, led by Saudi Arabia and other GCC states with the Islamic Republic. Such a dialogue can address many of the issues at the heart of the current state of mistrust between the two shores of the Arabian Gulf.

* [Editor's note: Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani confirmed on Wednesday that he will attend the Saudi summit, amid the ongoing blockade]

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC

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