Saudi leaders are looking for ways to work with their Arab Gulf allies and prepare for scenarios involving Iran, the nuclear deal and the more delicate regional issues between Riyadh and Tehran.
Ahead of the 42nd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh, due to start on December 14, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is on tour in Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar , Bahrain, and Kuwait.
The Saudi Crown Prince has many goals on this Gulf tour. The focus is on the opportunities for higher levels of trade, investment and economic integration across the Arabian Peninsula. A genuine desire on the part of Saudi Arabia to deepen its economic ties with the smaller GCC states has been another factor pushing Riyadh to improve relations with Qatar and Oman this year.
MBS visiting the other five members of the GCC from Saudi Arabia on this tour is the result of the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement. The Saudi-led Gulf blockade against Qatar since mid-2017 officially ended with the Al Ula summit in January this year, easing – but not completely eliminating – tensions within the GCC.
Given the extent of the deterioration of Riyadh-Doha relations after the start of the blockade, it is significant that Qatar is the third stop on MBS’s tour. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of ââhim going to Doha was simply unthinkable. Thus, the Crown Prince’s first visit since the crisis will undoubtedly mark an important moment in the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement.
But why was MBS so determined to patch things up with Doha? Many factors come into play, but fear of Iran was a critical factor behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to become the chief agent of the Al Ula summit.
Put simply, the Riyadh rulers have decided that establishing a stronger Gulf Arab bloc vis-Ã -vis Iran should be a priority rather than pressuring Doha to adopt stronger policies. favorable to the worldviews of Qatar’s immediate neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, MBS’s tour of the Gulf reflects the continuation of Saudi efforts to bring GCC states closer to a unified position vis-Ã -vis the Islamic Republic.
Uncertainty surrounds Iranian nuclear dossier
No matter what comes out of the nuclear talks in Vienna, the Saudi Crown Prince will want to see GCC members strengthen coordination on issues related to Iran. If the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is revived, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries will still have serious concerns about non-nuclear issues that the JCPOA does not address. These include Iran’s support for some non-state actors in the Arab world like Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as ballistic missile activity from Tehran. Iranian drones in the Middle East are also a growing concern in Arab Gulf capitals.
At the same time, if the Vienna talks fail to reconstitute the 2015 nuclear deal, the risks of a military confrontation are higher. Any Gulf war involving the United States and Iran would inevitably leave all Arab Gulf states vulnerable to extremely dangerous scenarios.
“Clearly, there is an urgent need to unify, to the extent possible, or at least better coordinate, the GCC’s position towards Iran, especially given the apparent imminent collapse of the indirect nuclear negotiations in Vienna. “Dr Hussein Ibish, senior resident researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TRT World.
“Assuming there is a lasting failure in efforts to revive the JCPOA, it is likely that Washington and its regional allies will need to shift to a more comprehensive containment strategy regarding Iran.”
With every GCC member relying on the United States as a guarantor of security, Arab officials in the Gulf are undeniably worried about the costs of keeping Washington as a key strategic partner, especially in the wake of the country’s botched pullout. Afghanistan this year.
But GCC officials questioning the wisdom of remaining so dependent on the United States as a defense partner dates back years and predates Biden’s presidency. Even when the Trump administration imposed “maximum pressure” on Tehran, Washington let the Saudis down in the face of destabilizing Iranian conduct, at least in Riyadh’s eyes.
Dr Ibish explained: â[The Iranian attack on] Saudi Aramco’s key facilities during the Trump administration that went unanswered were an inflection point for many states, indicating that the type of security guarantees in place since the assurances of the âCarter Doctrineâ fell. ‘apply more, and that a response to military provocations in the Gulf region will likely only be triggered in the event of a large-scale attack on one of these countries or the death of Americans. ”
Other experts agree. Dr David Roberts, scholar based in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, Explain that after the Aramco attacks of September 2019: âThe United Arab Emirates [and other Gulf Arab states] underwent a fundamental recalculation of regional relations after the clothing of the Emperor of the United States was found to be missing at a most inopportune time.
As Dr Annelle Sheline, a researcher in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, told TRT World: âIn general, the mood in the Gulf seems to reflect the realization that these countries cannot rely on United States as the guarantor of security, and therefore they must find a modus vivendi between them.
Today, each GCC member has their own bilateral relationship and their own interests vis-Ã -vis Tehran. This reality is likely to challenge the Saudi leadership as they attempt to form a united Arab Gulf front against the Islamic Republic.
That said, with Riyadh taking a less hawkish approach to Iran and Abu Dhabi continuing its own dialogue with Tehran, Saudi and Emirati leaders are likely to find Kuwait, Oman and Qatar’s more diplomatic approaches with their Persian neighbor less problematic. than before. Regardless, despite the lack of consensus from the GCC on how best to interact with Tehran, there is a general feeling among the Gulf Arab states that, as Dr Ibish argued: âthe awareness is an important part of de-escalation. “
Gulf officials may have low expectations of what can be achieved from the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, which began eight months ago in Iraq. Nonetheless, the GCC is aware that Tehran’s engagement is the most pragmatic way to proceed.
Iran will be a permanent neighbor, and not speaking to Tehran will not lead to long-term stability. Arab Gulf leaders understand that they cannot stand idly by and wait for US leaders to lead meaningful engagement between the GCC states and the Islamic Republic. The Gulf countries are taking the initiative.
Against this backdrop, Riyadh leaders seek to find out how the Saudis and their Arab Gulf allies can best work together under a recently reconciled GCC to prepare for virtually any scenario involving Iran, the JCPOA and the most delicate regional regions. questions between Riyadh and Tehran.
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Source: TRT World