What is Saudi agenda for ‘emergency summits’ on Iran?

Saudi Arabia is taking a wait-and-see approach in lead up to important summits.

May 22, 2019 02:31
4 minute read.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Saudi Arabia sent invites to Arab leaders for emergency summits that are supposed to convene in Mecca on May 30. First announced on May 18, the invites arrived through the Arab League to member states and Gulf leaders. Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon have welcomed the invites. Qatar says it was excluded. The UAE says the meeting is of critical importance.

Saudi Arabia is inviting the leaders to two summits, one of leaders to discuss the “aggression and consequences” related to tensions with Iran and the sabotage of four oil tankers on May 12. The second meeting will be at the 14th session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, according to Saudi Arabia’s official news agency. Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said this week that the Kingdom does not want war with Iran but believes Tehran is seeking to destabilize the region. Jubeir has been a critic of Iran’s policies for many years.

In Lebanon, Lebanese President Michel Aoun spoke with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and agreed Hariri will lead the Lebanese delegation, according to Arab News. Aoun has tended to be an ally of Iranian-backed Hezbollah while Hariri is closer to Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s father was murdered in 2005 in an assassination blamed on Hezbollah.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have coordinated their foreign policies closely in the last few years. This has included in the support of Yemen’s government’s war against the Houthi rebels. On the night of May 20, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile deep into Saudi Arabia and on May 13 Houthi drones attacked Saudi oil facilities. Iran has supported the Houthis and Fars News mocked the “great Saudi arsenal” on Tuesday, noting it couldn’t defeat Yemen’s simple technology.

Kuwait’s Al-Jarida noted Kuwait’s strong support for the meeting, describing the Houthis as terrorists. Kuwait says that it seeks security and stability in the region and is concerned about effects on the oil markets. Bahrain has also said it supports the summits. Bahrain is supposed to host a US-led meeting regarding the support for the Palestinian economy on June 25-26. This is seen as linked to the US desire to roll out a peace plan.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait are close allies of the US. The meeting that Riyadh is hosting comes in that context and with a desire to create a united front against any Iranian aggression. But if the meeting was in fact an emergency meeting held to actually do something after the oil tanker sabotage on May 12, then it would have been convened by now. Instead the meeting is being held after giving the US sufficient time to act against Iran or to discuss its actions with Riyadh and the local allies.

That Qatar was not invited is not a surprise. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremism in the region. In general, Qatar and Turkey are now close allies and both tend to be closer to Iran than Saudi Arabia. But Doha also hosts US talks with the Taliban, and there is a US military base in Qatar. So Qatar’s exclusion is part of the puzzle for the Americans, who also want a united front against Iran.

The White House is briefing Congress on the tension with Iran this week, and Riyadh wants to see what comes out of that meeting. Riyadh also had to respond Monday to a Houthi drone attack near the city of Najran.

The nature of the Riyadh-led emergency meeting is still unclear, but Riyadh is likely unwilling to do anything more on its own. It is already dealing with several years of war in Yemen, a war that is increasingly controversial in the West and among Saudi’s western allies. In addition, the Houthis’ missiles and drones appear to be increasingly threatening to Saudi Arabia. Yet Riyadh has not requested any new measures against the Houthis. In addition, despite two Saudi oil tankers being targeted by sabotage on May 12, Riyadh hasn’t asked Washington for retaliation.

Saudi Arabia wants to cement its alliance, but it doesn’t want a new conflict. This appears to be the message of waiting to hold the meeting and also not openly calling on Washington for new measures. Yet, Riyadh asserts that the Houthis have sought to strike at Mecca. The missiles fired from Yemen on May 20 were intercepted over Taif, but were allegedly heading toward Mecca.

Saudi media has emphasized that Iraq is sending delegations to Iran and Washington to cool tensions. This is after a rocket landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad. In addition, Al-Arabiya in Saudi Arabia reports that the US thinks Iran may have been behind the tanker sabotage. The question is, why hasn’t Saudi Arabia released its own findings, preferring to wait for the US to point the finger? Riyadh and the UAE have the experts that could investigate the sabotage to the tankers.

Riyadh also has other concerns in the region. It is trying to support the new government in Sudan and also Egypt. $250 million was sent from Riyadh to Sudan this week. In addition, Saudi Arabia is watching developments in Libya closely, where General Khalifa Haftar is fighting Tripoli-based National Accord forces in the capital. Turkish-made armored vehicles were sent to Tripoli to bolster the National Accord.

Saudi Arabia’s summits will come close to the end of Ramadan and just before Laylut ul-Qadr, an important night of the holy month. So far, the meeting looks to be yet another way for Riyadh to cement its alliance and also wait to see what the US plans to do regarding tensions with Iran.

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