On Tuesday, the region was watching carefully for Tehran’s reaction to the sanctions US President Donald Trump issued a day earlier targeting Iranian leaders including the supreme guide, the foreign minister and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), barring them from accessing the international financial system.
Tehran had already said new sanctions would close the door on the possibility of diplomatic dialogue with Washington.
“It is a significant move escalating pressure on Iran. Iran’s response will determine whether the escalation will continue or recede,” commented an Egyptian official.
The new set of US sanctions came two days after Trump said he reversed a decision to launch military strikes against Iran at the last minute. The aborted strikes were intended as retaliation for Iran’s downing of a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Washington recently designated the IRGC as a terrorist group in a ratcheting up of pressure that began with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year.
An Abu Dhabi-based source said that the UAE and Saudi Arabia “truly welcomed the American decision”.
“It is important that the leaders of Iran realise that they will face continued pressure as long as their policies threaten regional peace and security,” he said.
Both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh had “encouraged” the move. “It would be hard to underestimate the influence of the two capitals on the direction of the US policy on the Middle East,” said a Washington-based Arab diplomat.
Appearing on the French news satellite channel France 24 this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said his country is in continuous consultation with the US over regional issues, especially “Iranian threats” to peace and stability.
Cairo-based Western diplomats argue Washington is more influenced by the Israeli wish to pressure Iran than by lobbying from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
As Trump was announcing the new sanctions on Iranian officials his National Security Adviser John Bolton, the most hawkish member of the US administration on Iran, was meeting in Jerusalem with his Russian and Israeli counterparts Nikolai Patrushev and Meir Ben Shabat.
The focus of the meeting was Iran and Syria and in its wake Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu promised a firmer international stance against Iran.
The Jerusalem meeting coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia. Following his meetings with the Saudi king and crown prince, Pompeo told reporters that the US is committed to supporting Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo was scheduled to arrive in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
According to the Abu Dhabi source, Pompeo’s talks in the two Arab Gulf countries focused mainly on Iran, though the Palestine file was also discussed given that Pompeo’s trip came practically on the eve of the Manama workshop, hosted by Bahrain, on the economic portion of the mega-deal that Trump has long posited as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The workshop was essentially a high-level regional conference, initially planned to launch Israeli/Palestinian-Arab economic cooperation.
Firm resistance from the Palestinian Authority and scepticism in some Arab capitals about the plan forced the US administration to accept a reduction in the level of representation.
According to Cairo-based Western diplomats, downgrading the two-day Manama event clearly indicates the limits of Gulf influence on Washington’s Middle East agenda.
According to one, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, “along with close regional allies”, tried to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to some form of limited official representation in Manama. He refused point blank.
“And it was not just Abbas who declined the pressure coming from the Gulf. Jordan did too,” said the diplomat.
In an interview with Russia Today this week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri toed a very careful line on Iran and Palestine.
Egypt, said Shoukri, is in favour of political dialogue based on transparency and commitment to resolve the tensions between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours.
Cairo, he added, would continue to support the security of Bab Al-Mandab but believes political dialogue is the best exit for the crisis in Yemen.
He also stressed that Egypt was attending the Manama workshop “to listen to this [American] proposition and evaluate it, not to approve it.
“We have the right to evaluate it, view it and develop a vision about it, but the final decision lies with the main stakeholder — the Palestinian Authority.”
Responding to a question about recent US suggestions hinting at “an alternative homeland for Palestinians in Sinai,” Shoukri said Cairo would not cede “a single grain of sand” from the peninsula.
According to an Egyptian official, it would be “unrealistic” to suggest the influence of the Gulf powers on regional politics had not expanded post Arab Spring, “but this is not to say that we are living in ‘a Gulf moment’.”
Hoda Raouf, an expert on regional and Iranian affairs, points out that there is no consensus on the policies being proposed by either Saudi Arabia or the UAE among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“The six member states do not share the same position in Iran,” she said.
Nor is it simply a question of differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on one hand, and Qatar on the other.
“It is also about Kuwait, which has channels of economic cooperation with Iran, and Oman which has shared interests, including a joint interest with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz.
“While Riyadh openly opposed the nuclear deal with Iran, Oman was hosting secret meetings between Iranian officials and representatives of the Obama administration,” Raouf said.
Egypt, Raouf argues, is keeping a distance from the KSA/UAE position in Iran.
“I think this was very clear in the statements of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Mecca last month during the Arab and Islamic meetings chaired by King Salman.”
Al-Sisi offered “explicit but carefully worded support to Gulf countries but opted only for implicit criticism of Iran”.
An Arab League source argued this week that while it is hard to overlook the increasing influence the KSA and UAE exercise over the pan-Arab organisation, Egypt, Iraq and even Algeria are also making their voices heard.
“The current secretary-general of the Arab League is Egyptian, in keeping with the tradition, and I think the next secretary-general will also be Egyptian; so it is a bit too early to speak of a so-called Gulf moment,” he said.
The Abu Dhabi-based source insists the Gulf moment has already arrived. When Washington seeks policy changes on the Middle East, he says, it always contacts Riyadh and Abu Dhabi first.
Yet the same source adds that there is still awareness that “it is always important to secure the political support of Egypt, for example.
“We are in the process of changing the hands at the driving wheels of Arab policy-making, but obviously we are not done yet.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Driving regional policy