Handshakes, Jerusalem and Iran: The politics of the Saudi summits

Leaders and representatives of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states pose for a group photo during an extraordinary meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2017 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Leaders and representatives of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states pose for a group photo during an extraordinary meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2017
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia hosted three summits over the weekend, one of Gulf states, another of Arab regional states and the 14th Islamic summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The important meetings gathered Islamic leaders from the world and particularly key figures from the Gulf states with a focus on Iran and also on US policy and Jerusalem.
Saudi newspaper Okaz called the confabs “the three summits and deterrence of Iran.” This was generally the narrative adopted by Saudi Arabia, focusing on Iran’s threats. Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said that a war with Iran was not in the region’s interests, but that Iran’s conduct should change. This related to alleged Iranian sabotage of four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier this month. The US has blamed Iran and Saudi Arabia wants a joint Arab stance on the threat.
Since June 2017 Qatar has been sidelined by its Gulf neighbors and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia and the UAE broke relations with the emirate. But Qatar was invited to the Mecca summit and its Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani attended. For summit watcher the gossip was all about who the Qatari PM would shake hands with. Saudi King Salman did shake the Qatari’s hand while the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is seen as taking a more hardline stance on Qatar, looked on. Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute saw it as a positive sign. Hassan Sajwani, an Emirati, tweeted a photo showing the Qatari PM appearing to be ignored by his Gulf colleagues.
The Qataris met with Tunisia’s head of state at the summit. However they also appeared to leave one summit meeting when King Abdullah of Jordan was speaking. While Qatar hinted it was interested in joint Arab and Islamic policies, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya wrote that Qatar had come to the summit at the behest of US pressure. Saudi Arabia also said that Doha would have to return to the “right path” if it wanted to resolve the Gulf crises.
Al-Jazeera in Qatar was enthusiastic about the meeting. It highlighted a statement that appeared to support the Palestinians and which condemned countries moving embassies to Jerusalem. “The Palestinian people have the right to achieve their inalienable national rights,” the OIC statement said. Turkish media also spotlighted support for the Palestinians.
Al-Arabiya reported that the Palestinian Authority welcomed the support in Ramallah. It also said the summit showed “unlimited support for Saudi security.”
The key issue of the summits was to highlight the importance of Saudi Arabia and that it is a key player in regional, Gulf and Islamic affairs. For the last two years Riyadh has faced some challenges in this traditional place of leadership. It had to deal with increased Iranian threats in Yemen from the Houthi rebels and a four year war that it has led against the Houthis. After the murder of former Saudi insider and media figure Jamal Khashoggi the Kingdom was also slammed by western commentators and Turkey. But now Saudi Arabia is back and the three summits cemented its role in three concentric circles of power. It’s message was clear: Rein in Iran.
The appearance of Qatar at the summit was symbolically important, but it didn’t send its head of state. However Qatar is a key ally for the US, hosting talks with the Taliban and a large military base, so the US wants Qatar to have better relations with the rest of the Gulf. But Qatar’s role is also controversial due to its historic support for Hamas and also other extremists who have been hosted in Qatar. It is closely allies with Turkey, which has provided it support but also led it on a separate path from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In the lead-up to the US support for Bahrain conference on the Palestinians, the Gulf countries are of central importance. This may be one context of the Qatar-Saudi thaw.