The Mekkah Summits and the Unfolding Iranian Threat to Regional Security

By Antonino Occhiuto - A series of major events prompted Saudi Arabia to invite leaders from across the Arab world to two emergency summits hosted in the holy city of Mecca – one for Arab League leaders and one for members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Most recently, Iran’s targeting of Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) oil assets added to the existing suspicion the Arab Gulf countries have of Tehran’s attempts to project itself in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, in addition to its subversive activities in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This couples with an already complex regional situation. On 15 May 2019 Iran announced the end to some of its commitments agreed to as part of  the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal, which was meant to curtail the Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for financial relief. According to Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this is part of the country’s strategy ‘not to give in to economic and political pressure from Washington.’

Why Now?

As the wars in Syria and Yemen drag on and an array of nefarious groups connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continue their activities thought the region, including the targeting of major international oil infrastructures, patience with Tehran is wearing thin. The US has followed up its repeated warnings to Iran to halt status-quo threatening activities by deploying additional assets, including 1500 more troops to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud called for these two emergency summits to discuss the recent ‘exceptional challenges’ and ‘their consequences,’ as stated by King Salman himself. Over the past years, Saudi Arabia sought to build Arab alliances,  military and political, to counter Iran’s sectarian regional agenda and its meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries both in the Gulf and in the Levant.

As Iran has now demonstrated its ability to strike Saudi Arabia’s heartland using regional agents such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Riyadh aims to the remobilisation of Arab states to create a united front to confront Tehran and to draft a common response in case tensions escalate into a full-scale confrontation. Crucially, these two emergency summit come just before a planned meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation(OIC) in which the message of Saudi Arabia and its allies could further resonate.

Key Takeaways

There are 4 major takeaways emerging from these summits:

  1. All countries recognised the dangers that Iran’s latest activities pose to the international oil trade, which is a key source of income for most of them. For instance, Tunisia’s President, Beji Caid Essebsi, noted that the latest attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia threaten the security of the entire region and global trade. The final communiqué by leaders of the GCC and the one by the Arab League members attending the summit, supported the right of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take the necessary measures to defend their interests in the face of the attacks. In particular, the Arab League statement called on Iran to 'respect the sovereignty of Arab states and stop interfering in the affairs of countries.'
     

  2.  With regard to the condemnation of Iran there was not total unanimity among the Arab states with Iraq objecting  and distancing itself from the Arab communiqué. Iraq’s President Barham Salih, declared that the security and stability of Iran is in the interest of all Muslim and Arab states and fears the consequence of actions against Tehran. Baghdad enjoys good relations with the US and its Arab Gulf allies but also with the Islamic Republic with which it shares a 1,400 kilometres border. If that was not enough Iraq is already home to more than 40 Iran-backed heavily armed militias. This leaves Baghdad with little room to manoeuvre and preferring political dialogue with Iran to a more resolute approach potentially backed by force.
     

  3. Much was speculated about the significance of Riyadh’s decision to extend the invitation to Mecca to Qatar despite the ongoing diplomatic rift that began in June 2017 as Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE interrupted all relations with Doha in opposition to the latter’s foreign policy. Crucially, Qatar’s invitation and the fact that the Saudi leadership contacted the Emir of Qatar directly suggests that the tension with Iran is taken very seriously in Riyadh. As such the Kingdom is attempting to build an even broader than usual consensus on how to deal with Iran. Doha’s invitation is potentially a positive step in easing the Gulf rift but its significance should not be overstated. There is very little suggesting that the meeting addressed the underlying factors that led to the rift. Notably, Qatar alongside traditionally neutral Oman, was the only GCC state refusing to make official declarations regarding the communiqué, signalling Doha’s and Muscat’s distance from it.
     

  4. The attempt to foster Arab unity brought new emphasis, during the Arab League summit, on the Israel-Palestine issue. All members agreed to continue their backing of the two-state solution, demanding all states not to transfer their embassies to Jerusalem or recognise the city as the capital of Israel, while rejecting all unilateral Israeli steps undermining Palestinian statehood.

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The Euro Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) will continue to monitor major initiatives and events developing around growing tensions in the Gulf. Iran is widely expected to continue its clandestine activities and encouraging attacks by its proxy militias to increase the economic cost of its isolation. Such behaviour has the potential to trigger a military reaction from the US-led coalition. Arab unity is key to form an alliance that is capable of deterring Iran from committing further provocations. Only this can halt an escalation that has the potential to unleash a devastating war in the Gulf—the only remaining island of relative stability in a region in turmoil.

31 May 2019

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