Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir arrives at the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting at the request of Saudi Arabia, in Cairo, Egypt, November 19, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMR ABDALLAH DALSH)
At the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers under the auspices of the Arab League on Sunday, Iran and Hezbollah were condemned in the harshest terms. The meeting comes amid unprecedented tensions in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and as the war against Islamic State wraps up in Syria and Iraq. Here are five key takeaways from the meeting in Cairo:
Who was and was not there?
The meeting was called by Saudi Arabia, which recently hosted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and encouraged him to resign. Since then, Saudi Arabia has taken a particularly hard line against Hezbollah and Iran, speaking openly of war with the Shi'ite organization that is Lebanon’s most powerful political and military player. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil did not attend the meeting. Instead, he gave an interview to Russia Today.
“We should [prevent] Israel from starting a war exactly because Lebanon is sure to win it,” Bassil bragged in the interview.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa was one of the most outspoken in Cairo, accusing Iran of arming the region, including Hezbollah. He said Iran had left “thousands of wounds” on his country. Khalifa was referencing violence that has taken place in Bahrain since the Arab spring protests that were crushed in March 2011, when Saudi Arabia, with backing from the Gulf Cooperation Council, intervened to stop the mostly Shi'ite protests.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, a frequent critic of Iran's over the years, described a grave situation in the region.
"The region’s stability and security is [threatened] as a result of the ballistic missiles violations of Iran and the blunt interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries.”
According to Al-Arabiya, the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit joined the Saudis in expressing concern about missiles fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen. He described Iran as a “dangerous dagger,” pointing at the Arab states.
Although the UAE has backed Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other states, especially during the Qatar crises, it appears Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the country's minister of foreign affairs, was not present in Cairo but rather in Malaysia for a meeting.Condemning Hezbollah
The meeting was important because of the condemnation of Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization. According to Halim Shebaya, a Middle East commentator who has been following the meeting, Iraq and Lebanon opposed the wording of the condemnation of Hezbollah. He tweeted that Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, “succeeded in removing a sentence from the Arab League statement that would have placed responsibility on the Lebanese Republic for ‘Hezbollah’s terrorists activities.’”
The Lebanese permanent representative to the Arab League, Anoine Azzam gave an impassioned plea to the delegates in defense of Lebanon, according to LBCI Lebanese News. In the statement he refused to address specific complaints against Hezbollah and Iran’s interference, instead preferring to focus on “understanding between our Arab countries” and “strengthening Arab national security.” While condemning any aggression against “our Arab brothers,” and expressing solidarity with Arab states in dealing with “external interference.”
The condemnation of Hezbollah stops short of any kind of declaration of war on Iran. However it comes just 41 years after the deployment Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon on the eve of the Civil War in that country. Now concerns of a new conflict force the League to walk more softly and not fuel the crisis too much.
Saudi Arabia has called on the UN to take a role in dealing with Iran’s support of terrorism in the region. At the same time, Lebanese President Michel Aoun spoke on the phone with Un Secretary General Antonia Guterres, about the latest developments.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comments on the resignation of Said Hariri (REUTERS)Where is Saad Hariri?
On November 18th, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, or former Prime Minister if you accept his resignation — which Lebanon has not — arrived in Paris. He had been staying in Saudi Arabia since his momentous resignation on November 5th. On November 12th he gave an interview with to journalist Paula Yacoubian, in which he said he would return to Lebanon. But his mannerisms and the fact that he had stopped tweeting for several days had led to rumors Hariri was under house arrest. He tweeted on the way to the airport on November 17th.
Hariri was supposed to return to Lebanon after the visit with French President Emmanuel Macron. Now rumors and a party official from his Future Movement in Lebanon say he will go to Egypt. This comes amid other rumors reported by The New York Times
that Hariri had sought some kind of “safe haven” in Amman, Jordan when he was considering leaving Lebanon. Egypt has sought to help mediate the Lebanon crises, so Hariri’s travel there could be related to mediation, but coming on the heels of the Arab League meeting it seems oddly fortuitous.Israelis keep talking about Saudi ties
On November 19th, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz became the latest to hint at quiet connections with Saudi Arabia. “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries,” he said in response to a question on an interview at Army Radio. This comes five days after Communications Minister Ayoub Kara tweeted an invitation to the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al-Sheikh. On Thursday November 16, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot gave an interview with Saudi-owned news sit Elaph. “We are ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran,” he said according to reports. The numerous high level discussions about Saudi Arabia paint a picture of increasingly close policy alignment.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron. According to reports Macron discussed the situation in Lebanon. This conversation would have happened just after Macron had met with Hariri and he would have been able to share fresh assessments of what is happening. Since the public is largely in the dark as to what Hariri is up to, this is key to the larger puzzle unfolding in Cairo.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is expected to speak Monday night. He has already discussed in depth Saad Hariri’s trip to Saudi Arabia and allegations that Saudi Arabia wants war with Lebanon. He has dismissed talk of war with Israel and the Saudis. His speeches increasingly seem more important than those of the President of Lebanon Michel Aoun, as Hezbollah continues to hold the policy reins of the country. Hezbollah is also celebrating victory in Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraq border where Syrian regime forces supported by Iran and Hezbollah vanquished ISIS on Sunday.Conclusions
The main takeaway from the meeting in Cairo is it cements the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE ties that have been clear since the Qatar crises in July. But the elephant in the room is Egypt, where the meeting was held. Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi wants a more conciliatory approach. Lebanon and Iraq opposed the condemnation of Hezbollah — Lebanon because it is run mostly by Hezbollah. Iraq’s opposition relates to Iranian influence in Baghdad, a problem the Saudis have been attempting to roll back in the last year. The increasing discussions about Saudi Arabia and Israel leading the charge against Iran paint an important picture of the post-ISIS Middle East. Iran, Turkey and Russia are meanwhile preparing a major trilateral meeting in Sochi. The US is oddly quiet on the whole crisis, while France, which has historical interests in Lebanon, is stepping up to the plate.