Makkah talks are a chance to form a united front

Emergency summits should produce real solutions, and not be missed opportunities

A picture taken on November 17, 2016 shows the national flags of the members of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) states flying in front of the clock of the Abraj al-Bait Towers which overlooks the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)
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In the face of mounting tensions between the US and Iran, with repercussions across the region, Saudi Arabia is hosting two emergency summits in Makkah on Thursday, one with Arab League leaders and the other with members of the Gulf Co-operation Council. A third meeting with members of the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation will follow on Friday. Top of the agenda will be Iran's destabilising behaviour, which threatens the whole region, from its ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon to its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Leaders will be discussing Tehran's latest bout of aggression, launched under the weight of punitive US sanctions and in retaliation for the US pullout from the nuclear deal. Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi pipeline and Iran-backed militias launched a rocket at Baghdad's Green Zone earlier this month. The sabotage of four tankers off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE – which US national security adviser John Bolton today blamed on Iranian naval mines – will also be among the chief concerns of the summits.

These meetings are an opportunity for the Arab world to stand united in the face of aggression. The nations convening in Makkah have strong historic and cultural bonds, even if they do not always concur on how to deal with threats. Iraq is expected to attend, despite its close ties with Iran. Qatar has been invited to the talks, even though the two-year boycott by the Arab quartet continues. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s presence in the Lebanese government has prevented its leaders from taking a stand against Iran. The fragile stability of these two countries relies on maintaining good relations with both Washington and Tehran. But at a time when Iran is threatening to destabilise the whole region, a firm stance is needed to prevent further incursions. This is a time for Arab leaders to set aside their differences and express solidarity as those most affected by American-Iranian tensions.

But Arab countries must also be able to count on their western allies to provide support. In this regard, Mr Bolton’s current visit to Abu Dhabi sends a strong message. He reaffirmed that the US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were “on the same page” about the threat of Iranian weapons and made a point of visiting the UAE capital to discuss the next steps. Diplomatic talks are essential to de-escalate the situation and Mr Trump has repeatedly said he would be ready to sit down at the negotiating table with Tehran – an offer that Iran has shown no interest in reciprocating.

The meetings in Makkah should not be treated as a mere photo opportunity. They can and should be used to reaffirm strong ties, decide a course of action and play a pivotal role in de-escalating a dangerous situation.