Mohammed bin Salman
Will Oliver | Pool | Bloomberg | Getty Images
DUBAI — Arab leaders have convened in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca for a two-day emergency meeting aimed at addressing increasing tensions with Iran.
The Gulf states have even reached out to Qatar, the estranged neighbor that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt cut off via a land and sea blockade two years ago. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman extended his invitation to Qatar and Doha accepted, marking the first landing of a Qatari jet in Saudi Arabia since June of 2017.
“The fact that the Saudis contacted the Emir of Qatar directly suggests that the tension with Iran is taken very seriously in Riyadh,” Andrews Krieg, a lecturer at the King’s College London School of Security Studies, told CNBC.
“So the kingdom is ready to build a broader than usual consensus on how to deal with Iran.”
But does this signal a breakthrough in Qatar-GCC relations and a possible end to the blockade? Don’t hold your breath, regional experts warn.
“While the invitation to (Qatari Emir) Sheikh Tamim is a positive step in a potential thaw in the Gulf rift, it should not be overblown,” said Becca Wasser, a policy analyst and regional specialist at the Rand Corporation. “Such invitations are symbolic and important, but they do little to solve the underlying factors that led to the rift.”
Giorgio Cafiero, founder of Washington D.C.-based think tank Gulf State Analytics, poked further holes in the prospect of a warm reunion between the alienated states.
“Talk of the summits leading to a resolution of the Gulf crisis is premature,” he wrote in an article for foreign affairs website LobeLog along with Qatari academic Khalid al-Jaber. “In fact, the Saudis continue banning Qatari jets from the kingdom’s airspace. The Qatari jet that landed in Jeddah on May 27 was permitted entry into Saudi airspace just because of the upcoming Mecca summits, not due to any overall change in Saudi policy. “
While reports describe the Qatari monarchy as receiving the invitation warmly, Doha is sending its Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani rather than its head of state, given that official relations between the two remain frigid. The economic and political blockade was launched based on charges that Qatar supported extremism and enjoyed cozy ties with Iran, accusations the Qataris reject.
A united front against Iran?
But in terms of creating a united front against Iran, the fact that not all of the Gulf states have been directly targeted by Iran or its proxies “makes Iranian subversion a difficult rallying cry,” Wasser noted. Still, she pointed out, the attacks on oil tankers “increases the buy-in of many of the states as shipping lanes are essential to their economic health.”
Krieg at King’s College London agreed. “The irrational securitization of Iran in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not shared among the smaller states of the Gulf,” like Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, who have often acted as mediators during regional crises, Krieg said. “So the least common denominator that they can agree on might be far off from an actionable policy towards Iran. At the most we can expect a common position that will call on Iran not to escalate,” he added.
The summit follows several weeks of escalatory developments in the Gulf region, most significantly a mysterious attack on four tankers off the UAE coast that White House officials have blamed on Iran, and drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton was in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, meeting with Gulf allies to chart a course of action in response to what the President Donald Trump administration has cited as increased and serious threats from Tehran. Washington has already announced it will send 1,500 additional U.S. troops to the region, and last week pushed through an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan without Congressional approval.
While the White House has repeatedly said it is not seeking war or regime change, experts fear a miscalculation could lead to more serious confrontation. Iranian officials have denied involvement in the recent attacks, calling the charges “ludicrous.”
But some analysts feel that Bolton is looking for an excuse to harden his already hawkish stance toward Iran. The former diplomat has openly called for regime change in Iran in the past.
Tehran, under pressure from heavy U.S. sanctions, has announced an end to some of its commitments to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which was meant to curtail the country’s nuclear program in exchange for financial relief. Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps recently designated by Trump as a terrorist organization, has repeatedly vowed that his country would not cower to U.S. pressure.