Beyond the Solidarity, the Same Old Middle East Conflicts

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

by Thomas W. Lippman

There’s no telling how much it cost Saudi Arabia to stage that lavish three-summit extravaganza in Mecca last week, but on the surface it appeared that the Saudis got their money’s worth.

King Salman presided and, at least on video, looked alert and good humored. The power behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, literally stood behind the throne as the king welcomed the delegates.

Two days of earnest speeches and cardamom coffee in a gilded conference center produced consecutive communiqués from kings, presidents, and prime ministers representing first the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), then the entire Arab League, and then more than 50 countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, from Benin to Kyrgyzstan to Bangladesh. Virtually every majority-Muslim country participated except Syria and of course, Iran, which was the target of the whole exercise.

In strong language, the statements denounced “extremism and fanaticism in all their forms and manifestations,” Iran’s regional policies and missile development, Iran’s proxies in Yemen’s civil war, the rebel militia known as Houthis, and “Iranian interference in the Syrian crisis.” Without any apparent dissent, the leaders thanked King Salman for his leadership and went home, some after a side trip to Medina to visit the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. To all appearances, Saudi Arabia had lined up virtually the entire Muslim world, including some majority-Shia countries, to cast Iran into the outer darkness.

Underlying Rifts

It doesn’t take much deep analysis, however, to read between the lines of the communiqués and review the atmospherics of the meetings to see that the multiple conflicts of the Gulf and the wider Middle East remain as intractable as before. The communiqués are unlikely to be well-received in Tehran, and,, despite the appeals for peace and cooperation, some lines of conflict are intractable actually hardening:

  • Saudi Arabia’s implacable hostility to Iran, supported by the U.S. administration of Donald Trump, dominates the regional strategic landscape and, after recent escalation and U.S. naval deployments, is becoming more dangerous, not less.
  • No end is in sight to the disastrous war in Yemen, where the Houthis have logistical support from Iran and have increased cross-border missile strikes into Saudi Arabia.
  • There is virtually no prospect that the participating countries will accept a U.S. proposal for peace between the Palestinians and Israel if it does not deliver to the Palestinians “an independent and sovereign state with Al Quds [Jerusalem] as its capital.” That is an unlikely outcome, especially now that the United States has moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • As a Christian, Lebanese president Michel Aoun could not attend an event in Mecca, where non-Muslims are prohibited, so his country was represented by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri was once a protégé of the Saudis, but the last time he was in the kingdom the Saudis forced him to announce his resignation, only to have him rescind it once he returned to Beirut. The apparent issue was Hariri’s acquiescence in the expanding political power of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group sponsored then and now by Iran.
  • Turkish President Reycep Tayyip Erdogan did not attend, sending Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in his place. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated sharply since the murder last October of self-exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turks made public evidence that implicated the Saudi leadership in the crime, but relations were already coming under strain because of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman quest for religious influence among Sunni Muslims, a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s claims.
  • The Libyan delegation represented only one faction claiming to be the legitimate ruler of the divided country, at war with itself since the 2011 ouster of longtime strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

Qatar Boycott

A delegation from Qatar participated, arriving in Saudi Arabia on a Qatari jet, the first time a Qatari plane has landed in Saudi Arabia since the onset of a multi-nation Arab boycott of Qatar, instigated by the Saudis, in 2017. Some analysts saw that as a hopeful sign that the boycott, which has virtually destroyed whatever effectiveness the GCC might once have had, could be brought to an end. But Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, did not attend, and the GCC communiqué did not address one of the fundamental causes of the feud: the status of the international Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia, always suspicious of any citizen organization it does not control, has denounced the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Qatar’s position is considerably more tolerant, and the Qataris have refused to support the campaign against the organization led by its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and supported by Egypt and Bahrain.

The boycott has disrupted commercial and family life, as well as air travel, all around the Gulf, but it has failed to force Qatar to submit to the quartet’s demands.

On the contrary, as the British analyst Jane Kinninmont writes in a new Chatham House paper:

Qatar has been able to withstand the pressure of the boycott because of its extensive economic resources and its political alliances beyond the Gulf region. As the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), it has benefited from moves by many Western and Asian countries to switch their energy sources from oil to LNG. It has used gas contracts and sovereign wealth investments to consolidate relationships with many countries around the world, and it hosts the main US airbase in the Middle East. Doha’s alliance with Turkey has deepened since the crisis began; it has strengthened its relations with Iran, too. Its links with Turkey and Iran were among the features of its foreign policy that the Quartet objected to, but by cutting off Qatar’s trade routes through Saudi Arabia the Quartet’s boycott has only pushed Qatar closer to these other players.

Another analyst, Georgio Cafiero, wrote recently that the Saudis have put themselves in a position where they cannot back off from the Qatar boycott without embarrassment and loss of status in the region. “For the blockading states,” he wrote, “it would be humiliating to lift or even ease the blockade without having achieved any of their objectives, as outlined in the 13 demands of 2017. If relations are restored without Doha having made any changes, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would be seen as weak.” Because they can’t back off, the stalemate is likely to continue.

In the summit trifecta, King Salman and his ambitious son Crown Prince Mohammed achieved all the symbolic success money could buy. Whether their country and its friends emerged any stronger in reality, or moved closer to stabilizing the region, is at least open to question.

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

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  1. Hey Tom. How serious is this “boycott” of Qatar when the UAE itself continues to import a billion cubic meters of natural gas from the North Field that Qatar owns and shares with – Iran. and paid for in cash, many millions of dollars every day. So Middle Eastern!

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