Saudi scores diplomatic gain by keeping focus on Tehran

Iranian proxies, lack of diplomatic say over Syria still challenge Riyadh’s strategic position

epa07617747 A handout photo made available by the Saudi Royal Court shows general view during the Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 30 May 2019 (issued on 01 June 2019). Muslim leaders from 57 nations gathered in Mecca to discuss the developments regarding Iran, Palestinian statehood and others. Saudi Arabia's King Salman slammed Iran over recent attacks on Saudi and Emirates oil ships describing the incidents in a speech as "terrorist acts"  and "grave danger" endanger international energy supplies.  EPA/Bandar al-Galoud / Saudi Royal Palace HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Saudi Arabia achieved a diplomatic win by focusing last week’s summits in Makkah on what it calls the Iranian security threat, despite there being dozens of diverging position across the region.

The onus remains largely on Saudi Arabia to keep up the diplomatic momentum against Tehran. Some Arab States, notably Lebanon and Iraq, are still significantly beholden to Iranian proxies, regardless of official statements that support Riyadh or insist neutrality.

In Makkah, Iraqi President Barham Salih avoided any criticism of Iran as he tried to balance the official position between his country’s powerful neighbour, its own the Tehran-backed militias and key partners in the Gulf and United States.

Against the backdrop of heightened US military presence in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia convened two emergency meetings in Makkah for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League states, ahead of a scheduled meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that concluded on Friday.

The US scrapping of the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and the intensified sanctions on Tehran, met with a hardening Iranian position, have raised the risk of a military confrontation in the region.

The last month has witnessed a sabotage attack against oil tankers off the UAE coast, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have stepped up attacks and used drones on oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary forces have fired a rocket into the capital’s diplomatic enclave.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the recent attacks, saying it was an effort by Tehran to raise global oil prices. Iran denies any involvement and last week called on Arab states to use the Makkah meetings to focus on America’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

Three high-profile gatherings in the span of 48 hours may seem like diplomatic overkill but Tehran’s demands were largely ignored. The issue of Iranian security threats was regularly raised.

But that didn’t mean Palestine was ignored. The final communique of the OIC affirmed support for the Palestinian cause ahead of a US-led peace plan that is widely expected to favour Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman told the GCC meeting that Iran had carried out the energy sector attacks in a threat to “the security of the region and global oil supplies.” In addressing the OIC meeting, King Salman said the attacks were terrorist acts.

Dr Hasan Al Momani, an associate professor in the International Studies department of the University of Jordan, said the presence of Qatar was a breakthrough for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh “managed to present Qatar as part of the GCC consensus” and home in on Iranian threats as a standalone issue.

"In these Arab or Islamic meetings, success is measured by the timing and attendance and addressing pressing issues. Saudi Arabia put across its point of view strongly," Mr Al Momani told The National via phone from Amman.

“The Saudis appear to be following an integration strategy. In this case, we have a US military build-up and a US administration somewhat determined to contain Iran. The Saudi next move might be to go to the UN Security Council,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not go to the Makkah meetings while leaders of other large Islamic states attended, among whom Nigeria and Pakistan. Turkey was represented by its foreign minister.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not attend, but his absence may have been more to do with domestic affairs than an objection to the meeting.

Taha Ozhan, head of the Ankara Institute, said Saudi Arabia could strengthen its strategic position by re-engaging with Turkey on Syria, where Russian backed attacks by the regime of Bashar Al Assad on the northern governorate of Idlib in the last month has caused carnage on the area’s mostly Sunni population. Iran, said Mr Ozhan, is a beneficiary of the offensive, in which Iranian-backed Shiite militia are a major component. Reports at the time suggest that Iran has long pushed to retake Idlib but was reined in by Russia when it made a deal last September with Turkey.

After the Syrian uprising against Mr Al Assad in 2011, Ankara and Riyadh coordinated on Syria but rifts between the two countries emerged and Saudi Arabia largely withdrew diplomatically from the issue.

UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has repeatedly said that it was a mistake for the Arab League to suspend Syria after the start of the war as it cut off the main means for regional states to push for a settlement. He said it handed that responsibility to the UN track, which has failed.

Turkey, however, has used relations with Russia to include itself in the Moscow backed peace talks in Astana and also have a seat at the table with Russia and Iran at trilateral talks on the conflict, despite backing rebels against Mr Al Assad’s major co-belligerents in the conflict.