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Sunday, 18 August 2019

Emergency Mecca summits to address urgent regional issues

While Iran will top the agenda of three simultaneous summits to be held in Mecca, the Palestinian cause will also be prominent, ahead of the soon-to-be-announced “Deal of the Century,”

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 29 May 2019
King Salman
Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (Photo: AFP)
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World attention has turned to Mecca amidst the flurry of last-minute preparations for three emergency summits called for by Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud two weeks ago against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Iran, on the one hand, and the US and allies in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) on the other.

The simultaneous convention of three such high-profile summits — at the Gulf, Arab and Islamic levels — is unprecedented.

But so, too, perhaps is the magnitude of the complexity and urgency of the regional issues and interplays that the participants will address, not least of which are the recent terrorist attacks on oil tankers and oil pumping stations, which relates to the various dimensions of the Yemeni conflict; the fragile security in the Gulf and Arab region, which connects with divisions in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the boycott of Qatar; and the Middle East conflict and the approaching launch of the so-called “Deal of the Century” in Manama.

The place, timing and number of these summits are significant in their own right. The choice of Mecca, the Islamic Holy City, adds an important religious dimension, one that lends an element of sacredness to conflict resolution efforts and to commitments to the obligations undertaken in connection with any agreements or resolutions.

The first manifestation of this dimension is the “Mecca Document” on the fight against terrorism that emerged from the four-day Muslim League Conference that convened in Mecca Monday under the banner “Values of Moderation in the Quran and Sunnah.”

The timing coincides with the ratcheting up of tensions in the Gulf, as mentioned, but also with the intensification of mediating efforts on the part of other countries.

As for the number of summits, it speaks of Saudi Arabia’s determination to rally as comprehensive a consensus behind it as possible among all entities and institutions that express Gulf, Arab and Islamic positions.

Observers have noted that the invitation that King Salman issued to participants explicitly focused on the threats to Saudi Arabia and the UAE from the Houthi militias in Yemen, which Riyadh blames for the attacks against two Saudi oil tankers near the UAE’s Fujeira port and the drone strikes against an Aramco pipeline and the Najran military base.

Riyadh wants to martial a sweeping Arab and Islamic condemnation against Iran for its behaviour in the region and, above all, for propelling its proxies into attacking Saudi Arabia which, together with the UAE, has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015.

While a significant body of opinion appears in favour of a condemnation of Iran as the power responsible for the behaviour of its proxies, as statements by Saudi and Emirati officials have indicated, there appears to be a process of revision in progress concerning the conflict in Yemen.

According to Arab affairs expert Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayat, “there is a growing trend that submits that Iran is not responsible for the actions of the Houthis in Yemen and that the Houthi attacks against the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) were carried out in the context of the current war in Yemen, independently of the escalation between the two sides (the Gulf countries and Iran).”

The GCC Summit is scheduled to meet first. Qatar’s addition to the guest list has riveted attention to this summit and stirred speculation as whether this signals a possible reconciliation after two years of boycott.

The GCC has not held a full senior level meeting since the boycott was declared against Doha by the Saudi-led quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain).

Bahrain and the UAE, as GCC members who will also be present at that summit, have not voiced an official position on the invitation that has been extended to Doha. Nor has Cairo, as the fourth member of the quartet.

Presumably, the level of Qatar’s participation in the Mecca summits will reflect developments related to the prospects of a reconciliation.

For example, in the 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran, in April 2018, Qatar attended at the level of its ambassador to the Arab League while in the 30th Arab Summit in Tunisia two months ago (31 March 2019), Qatari President Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attended the opening session, but left that session abruptly and rushed home.

The invitation perplexed official circles in Qatar, which the Arab quartet accuses of supporting terrorism in the region. Abdullah Al-Athba, a prominent Qatari journalist who is close to ruling circles in Doha, commented on his Twitter account: “Riyadh sent an invitation to His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, to attend the meetings it called for in Mecca, despite the fact that it describes the government in Qatar as terrorist... How can it be that they are inviting a party they accuse of supporting terrorism?”

Of course, Qatar’s relationship with Iran, which supported Doha during the boycott, will be another focus of the interplay in Mecca. Doha has frequently spoken out against the escalation in the confrontation with Iran and, in 2016, it was expelled from the Arab coalition against the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

Observers point to two major indicators on the question of a reconciliation with Qatar: the positions of the hardliners on Qatar, namely the UAE and Bahrain, on the one hand, and the positions of Oman and Kuwait which have drawn closer to Qatar and urged a return to Gulf unity, on the other.

But not only is there a sharp division over the Qatar question, there is a similar sharp division with respect to Iran, and along the same lines: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are the hardliners on Iran while Oman has stepped in to act as mediator in order to contain the crisis while Kuwait, in view of its relations with Iran, has lobbied to reduce tensions in the Gulf.

Iran appears to have been omitted from the guest list for the Islamic summit in Mecca which began its preparatory sessions Tuesday.

The Iranian flag did not take its place among the national flags of the countries taking part in the sessions of the summit being held in the framework of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Official statements from Iran indicate that Tehran was not planning to attend anyway.

Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Gholam Hossein Dehghani, in an interview with the state-owned Iran newspaper on Sunday, cautioned OIC countries against taking decisions and measures against Iran.

He said that the OIC should not be “held hostage” by Saudi Arabia which, along with some like-minded governments, might try to take advantage of the Mecca summit in order to take measures against some of the OIC members, including Iran. Dehghani pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the Islamic Republic’s permanent mission to the OIC in Riyadh in April 2017 and the simultaneous expulsion of the Iran’s envoy from Saudi Arabia were among the illogical consequences of the Saudi response to the rupture of bilateral relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

If the main item on the agenda of the Arab summit, which was only posted two days in advance, is to address the threats against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the summit is also likely to include a “workshop” on the “Deal of the Century”.

Before heading off to the summit in Mecca, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would reiterate his opposition to the “deal” project which is soon to be announced in Bahrain.

In a precedent on the Gulf’s handling of the Palestinian cause, the Gulf countries are promoting activities related to unveiling a negotiating process that the Palestinian Authority rejects. This is another item that will need to be sorted out in the Arab summit.

Sobhi Asila, Palestinian-Israeli affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Abbas has climbed atop the soapbox of rejection and it will be hard for Arab parties to coax him down. The Arab summit will be an opportunity for dealing with this situation.”

As for the outputs, resolutions will probably focus on the importance of the security and stability of the Gulf, condemnation of the threats against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the need to safeguard the security of maritime routes in the Gulf. Most likely, too, there will be some affirmation of commitment to the Palestinian cause, which is a permanent item on the agenda of all Arab summits.

World attention has turned to Mecca amidst the flurry of last-minute preparations for three emergency summits called for by Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud two weeks ago against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Iran, on the one hand, and the US and allies in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) on the other.

The simultaneous convention of three such high-profile summits — at the Gulf, Arab and Islamic levels — is unprecedented.

But so, too, perhaps is the magnitude of the complexity and urgency of the regional issues and interplays that the participants will address, not least of which are the recent terrorist attacks on oil tankers and oil pumping stations, which relates to the various dimensions of the Yemeni conflict; the fragile security in the Gulf and Arab region, which connects with divisions in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the boycott of Qatar; and the Middle East conflict and the approaching launch of the so-called “Deal of the Century” in Manama.

The place, timing and number of these summits are significant in their own right. The choice of Mecca, the Islamic Holy City, adds an important religious dimension, one that lends an element of sacredness to conflict resolution efforts and to commitments to the obligations undertaken in connection with any agreements or resolutions.

The first manifestation of this dimension is the “Mecca Document” on the fight against terrorism that emerged from the four-day Muslim League Conference that convened in Mecca Monday under the banner “Values of Moderation in the Quran and Sunnah.”

The timing coincides with the ratcheting up of tensions in the Gulf, as mentioned, but also with the intensification of mediating efforts on the part of other countries.

As for the number of summits, it speaks of Saudi Arabia’s determination to rally as comprehensive a consensus behind it as possible among all entities and institutions that express Gulf, Arab and Islamic positions.

Observers have noted that the invitation that King Salman issued to participants explicitly focused on the threats to Saudi Arabia and the UAE from the Houthi militias in Yemen, which Riyadh blames for the attacks against two Saudi oil tankers near the UAE’s Fujeira port and the drone strikes against an Aramco pipeline and the Najran military base.

Riyadh wants to martial a sweeping Arab and Islamic condemnation against Iran for its behaviour in the region and, above all, for propelling its proxies into attacking Saudi Arabia which, together with the UAE, has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015.

While a significant body of opinion appears in favour of a condemnation of Iran as the power responsible for the behaviour of its proxies, as statements by Saudi and Emirati officials have indicated, there appears to be a process of revision in progress concerning the conflict in Yemen.

According to Arab affairs expert Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayat, “there is a growing trend that submits that Iran is not responsible for the actions of the Houthis in Yemen and that the Houthi attacks against the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) were carried out in the context of the current war in Yemen, independently of the escalation between the two sides (the Gulf countries and Iran).”

The GCC Summit is scheduled to meet first. Qatar’s addition to the guest list has riveted attention to this summit and stirred speculation as whether this signals a possible reconciliation after two years of boycott.

The GCC has not held a full senior level meeting since the boycott was declared against Doha by the Saudi-led quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain).

Bahrain and the UAE, as GCC members who will also be present at that summit, have not voiced an official position on the invitation that has been extended to Doha. Nor has Cairo, as the fourth member of the quartet.

Presumably, the level of Qatar’s participation in the Mecca summits will reflect developments related to the prospects of a reconciliation.

For example, in the 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran, in April 2018, Qatar attended at the level of its ambassador to the Arab League while in the 30th Arab Summit in Tunisia two months ago (31 March 2019), Qatari President Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attended the opening session, but left that session abruptly and rushed home.

The invitation perplexed official circles in Qatar, which the Arab quartet accuses of supporting terrorism in the region. Abdullah Al-Athba, a prominent Qatari journalist who is close to ruling circles in Doha, commented on his Twitter account: “Riyadh sent an invitation to His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, to attend the meetings it called for in Mecca, despite the fact that it describes the government in Qatar as terrorist... How can it be that they are inviting a party they accuse of supporting terrorism?”

Of course, Qatar’s relationship with Iran, which supported Doha during the boycott, will be another focus of the interplay in Mecca. Doha has frequently spoken out against the escalation in the confrontation with Iran and, in 2016, it was expelled from the Arab coalition against the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

Observers point to two major indicators on the question of a reconciliation with Qatar: the positions of the hardliners on Qatar, namely the UAE and Bahrain, on the one hand, and the positions of Oman and Kuwait which have drawn closer to Qatar and urged a return to Gulf unity, on the other.

But not only is there a sharp division over the Qatar question, there is a similar sharp division with respect to Iran, and along the same lines: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are the hardliners on Iran while Oman has stepped in to act as mediator in order to contain the crisis while Kuwait, in view of its relations with Iran, has lobbied to reduce tensions in the Gulf.

Iran appears to have been omitted from the guest list for the Islamic summit in Mecca which began its preparatory sessions Tuesday.

The Iranian flag did not take its place among the national flags of the countries taking part in the sessions of the summit being held in the framework of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Official statements from Iran indicate that Tehran was not planning to attend anyway.

Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Gholam Hossein Dehghani, in an interview with the state-owned Iran newspaper on Sunday, cautioned OIC countries against taking decisions and measures against Iran.

He said that the OIC should not be “held hostage” by Saudi Arabia which, along with some like-minded governments, might try to take advantage of the Mecca summit in order to take measures against some of the OIC members, including Iran. Dehghani pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the Islamic Republic’s permanent mission to the OIC in Riyadh in April 2017 and the simultaneous expulsion of the Iran’s envoy from Saudi Arabia were among the illogical consequences of the Saudi response to the rupture of bilateral relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

If the main item on the agenda of the Arab summit, which was only posted two days in advance, is to address the threats against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the summit is also likely to include a “workshop” on the “Deal of the Century”.

Before heading off to the summit in Mecca, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would reiterate his opposition to the “deal” project which is soon to be announced in Bahrain.

In a precedent on the Gulf’s handling of the Palestinian cause, the Gulf countries are promoting activities related to unveiling a negotiating process that the Palestinian Authority rejects.

This is another item that will need to be sorted out in the Arab summit. Sobhi Asila, Palestinian-Israeli affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Abbas has climbed atop the soapbox of rejection and it will be hard for Arab parties to coax him down.

The Arab summit will be an opportunity for dealing with this situation.”

As for the outputs, resolutions will probably focus on the importance of the security and stability of the Gulf, condemnation of the threats against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the need to safeguard the security of maritime routes in the Gulf.

Most likely, too, there will be some affirmation of commitment to the Palestinian cause, which is a permanent item on the agenda of all Arab summits.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mecca summits

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