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Will Riyadh and Tehran meet in Istanbul?

Today's OIC summit in Istanbul could see a measured thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, though nothing is assured

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 14 Apr 2016
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) claps his hands next to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (L) during the family photo of the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit at Istanbul Congress Center (ICC) on April 14, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
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The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit chaired by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul today might see confrontation between the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, or — and as one Turkish diplomat suggested — a three-way meeting between the new chair of the summit and King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.

Turkey, the same diplomat told Ahram Online by phone, has for long been trying to pass “positive messages” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

He acknowledged that Turkey is member of a loose Sunni Muslim alliance that the Saudis summoned to send Tehran a message of strength. But Ankara, too, is a NATO member and “a country that likes to perceive itself as a leading regional player that aims to help contain tension and resolve problems. This is essential for Turkish diplomacy.”

The possibility of a three-way meeting was confirmed by other sources, including Western diplomats in Cairo, with one suggesting that if Erdogan manages to get the meeting together he would have delivered a considerable diplomatic coup.

The sources said that Washington is lending support to Ankara and that it is expected in the US capital that the meeting would take place.

The agenda of the meeting is very basic, according to sources who spoke to Ahram Online. “Just to break the ice and to get them to sit and talk together,” said the Turkish diplomat. “Well, to start a process that could reduce the level of high regional tension,” said the Western diplomat.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been particularly strained during the past few months, prompting parallel tensions in relations between Iran and most of the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), except Oman.

Saudi Arabia, which according to many Western and Arab diplomats tried everything to block the nuclear deal between Iran and the West concluded last year, has been getting very anxious over the intentions of Iran towards the ruling family in Riyadh.

Saudi diplomats have been openly suggesting to interlocutors in and out of the region that Tehran could try to use the Shias in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, particulary Bahrain (where Shias are the majority of the population), to topple the Saudi regime as part of a larger scheme to impose Iranian-Shia influence over the otherwise largely Sunni region.

Earlier this week in Cairo, King Salman used his political weight to prompt Egyptian support for the Sunni political-military camp that Riyadh has been composing.

Salman also stressed during a meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo the need for the highly influential Islamic institution to assert a stance against the expansion of the Muslim Shia faith in Arab countries.

The Saudi narrative suggests that Iran is spending a lot of money to entice Muslims in North Africa, Sudan and Djibouti to convert from the Sunni to the Shia faith in order to expand its base of support.

It was this Saudi apprehension over Iran that also prompted the visiting Saudi monarch to use his influence to start a process of slow reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey.

Turkey took a firm stance against the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 and openly — and at the highest level — criticised the new regime in Egypt for its treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathisers.

Relations soured to the point of very low diplomatic representation and an exchange of recriminations.

Salman had been hoping to convince Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to head the Egyptian delegation to the OIC summit, especially that Egypt is the outgoing chair and should hand over the rotated presidency of the 50-plus member Muslim organisation to Turkey.

El-Sisi agreed to send his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukri, to head the Egyptian delegation to the summit. Shoukri sent his undersecretary, Hesham Badr, to head the delegation of Egypt to the ministerial meeting.

A member of the Egyptian delegation said that Badr was very well received and conducted positive meetings, sending back a reassuring telegram to Cairo to inform Shoukri that his participation in the summit is unlikely to be interrupted by any show of diplomatic insensitivity on the part of the host — Turkey.

Originally, Cairo had planned to let a low-ranking diplomat who is operating its embassy in Ankara head the Egyptian delegation, downplaying the handover. This aimed to send Ankara a message of discontent over its criticism of the post-Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. It was also designed to avert any diplomatic incident should the president of Turkey make reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The president decided to accommodate the Saudi king, and we do have very good relations with Saudi Arabia and would like to help ease regional tensions as much as possible,” the Turkish diploamat said.

However, there are no major expectations from the participation of Shoukri in the OIC summit. “I am not sure this is a major game changer, but yes, one could expect a reduction of media hostility and so forth,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

Shoukri participation in the Istanbul summit, nonetheless, could allow a meeting with Egypt’s other regional "headache": Qatar. Riyadh's pursuit of a united Sunni front prompted both Egypt and Qatar, who experienced some diplomatic unease since the ouster of Morsi, to come together in a joint military grouping for manoeuvres under the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has committed to reducing the level of its criticism against the ruling regime in Egypt, particularly through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

Most recently, Qatar, to please Saudi Arabia, kept Al-Jazeera away from the recent controversy over Egypt's handover of two Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia.

According to diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online, the Istanbul summit will be mostly about what happens on the sidelines, rather than the official agenda of the summit itself that covers the Arab-Israeli struggle, the situation in conflict areas in Islamic countries, and economic and cultural cooperation among its member states.

Even Syria, which is a key issue for Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is likely to be discussed in depth only on the fringes of the summit hall.

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