Mecca summits underline divisions and distrust among former Gulf allies

An attempt by Riyadh to foster a unified front against Iran fell flat, as Doha and Baghdad both voiced their opposition. As the region marks two years since the start of the Saudi and UAE-led boycott of Qatar, the GCC is as divided as ever

There was plenty of hype, but a pair of summits organised at short notice by Saudi Arabia as the holy month of Ramadan was coming to a close failed to foster any sense of unity among the regional actors. Instead the gatherings have served to highlight the region’s many divisions; a series of petty snubs and undiplomatic arguments before and after the Mecca summits suggest there is little prospect of the situation improving in the short-term.

There had initially been some optimism ahead of meetings of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and Arab leaders in Mecca – timed to fit in with the already planned Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) Summit – not least because of the invitation extended by the Saudis to Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. In the end, rather than its head of state, Doha opted to send prime minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani. He was greeted at King Abdelaziz International airport in Jeddah by the Mecca region’s busy deputy governor Prince Badr Bin Sultan Bin Abdelaziz and GCC secretary-general Abdul-Latif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani. In official photos released by the Saudi authorities, neither Sheikh Abdullah nor Prince Badr appeared pleased to be there.

The choice of Prince Badr to welcome the Qataris contrasted with the reception given to other Gulf delegation leaders – including Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Iraq’s President Barham Salih, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Oman’s Sayyid Shihab Bin Tariq Al-Said – who were all met at the airport by Mecca region governor Prince Khalid Al-Faisal.

The UAE took a mixed approach to the events: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE Armed Forces deputy supreme commander Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan led the federation’s delegation to the GCC and Arab leaders’ summits, while Ras Al-Khaimah Ruler Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al-Qasimi stepped into that role for the OIC summit.

While there were no early walkouts – unlike some other recent gatherings (GSN 1,078/6) – there was evident discomfort during the events at Al-Safa Palace for some leaders such as King Hamad, who found himself standing next to Sheikh Sabah just as the veteran Kuwaiti peacemaker was engineering a handshake between King Salman and Sheikh Abdullah. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was seen shaking hands with Sheikh Abdullah in a less forced manner.

But beyond the protocol, any hopes that the Qatari presence might herald an end to the boycott by the GCC-3 of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Egypt – which passed its second anniversary on 5 June (GSN 1,038/1) – were disappointed. For all the talk of a need for unified action to tackle turmoil in the region, the Qatar dispute was firmly off the agenda.

The summits had been called to discuss regional security issues in the light of the recent drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the attacks on shipping off the coast of Fujairah (GSN 1,081/1). All Gulf countries should easily agree on the need to ensure the continued free-flow of oil and gas exports, but there are clear differences of approach. On a 29 May visit to the UAE, US national security advisor (NSA) John Bolton said the Fujairah incident was “almost certainly” the work of Iran. The belligerent NSA did not offer any evidence (and Iran has firmly denied having any involvement). However, it was notable that the UAE has not joined in the finger-pointing at Tehran, seemingly more wary than some of its allies about the prospect of open conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Bahrain has had no such compunction. King Hamad told the Arab leaders’ summit: “The entire world has followed the crimes and grave violations committed by terrorist groups supported by Iran against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, resulting in a serious threat to the security of the region.”

The GCC summit’s final communiqué avoided naming any perpetrator of the Fujairah attacks, but it heavily implied that Iran was to blame by calling on Tehran to abide by international law, to stop interfering in the internal affairs of countries in the region and to stop supporting terrorist groups and militias and threatening the security of maritime navigation. It included a line saying the GCC Supreme Council “reiterates its support for the USA’s strategy towards Iran… [and] lauds the actions taken by the USA to confront Iran”.

A more loosely-worded final communiqué from the Arab leaders’ meeting appeared to blame Iran for both the Houthi drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations and the Fujairah incident.

Differences soon emerged over these statements. Qatari foreign affairs minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said the Arab and GCC summit communiqués were not in line with his emirate’s foreign policy. Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman claimed Doha had not been consulted on their wording. That sparked a series of critical remarks by other foreign ministers. Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel Al-Jubeir tweeted that countries should “declare their positions and reservations within the framework of the meetings and in accordance with the established norms, not after the meetings have ended.” Jubeir added that “Qatar’s distortion of facts is not surprising”.

UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash retweeted that message and weighed in with his own comments, writing: “It seems to me that attending and agreeing at meetings and then undoing what has been agreed upon is due either to pressure on the weak… or the lack of credibility.” Bahraini foreign affairs minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa later criticised Qatar’s participation at the summits as “minimal and ineffective”.

Qatar was not the only state to demur from the published conclusions. Iraq has been cultivating GCC allies, but it remains close to Tehran and relies on Iranian energy imports to keep its power stations running (GSN 1,079/14). Baghdad thus also stepped back from the tough language against Tehran. “Everyone understands Iraq’s position and Baghdad does not want to be biased towards one party at the expense of another,” Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told a press conference following the summits.

Interlinked disputes

The Qatar dispute remains stuck in a stalemate, not least because the main protagonists are under no real economic or diplomatic pressure to compromise on their positions – despite some fallout for Dubai and other commercial partners. However, the interconnectedness of other hot and cold conflicts around the region means that failure to address the GCC dispute has clear ramifications for other files.

Washington has long realised that a divided GCC makes it harder to provide a coherent front for President Donald Trump’s key regional policy of isolating Iran and perhaps force regime change there. Indeed, the GCC dispute has pushed Qatar into a friendship of convenience with Tehran (even as Doha remains host of the large US military base at Al-Udeid) which is likely to remain in place unless Washington finds a way to force its allies to compromise with each other.

UAE and Saudi willingness to keep supporting a policy which has divided the GCC is a concern to other members. Officials in Oman feel they ‘know for sure’ the UAE has been preparing to intervene in the sultanate should the opportunity present itself when Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said dies (GSN 1,081/1). Muscat has rounded up two Emirati spy rings in recent years – one in the last six months. Sources tell GSN that knowledge of what they had been tasked with led directly to the recent ban on Emirati land ownership (GSN 1,073/1).

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