In the lead up to the 42nd summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, set to kick off on December 14, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is touring Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
The Saudi Crown Prince has numerous aims on this Gulf tour. There’s much focus on opportunities for higher levels of trade, investment, and economic integration throughout the Arabian Peninsula. A genuine desire on the part of Saudi Arabia to deepen economic ties with the smaller GCC states has been a factor pushing Riyadh to improve relations with both Qatar and Oman this year.
MBS visiting all five of Saudi Arabia’s fellow GCC members on this tour is an outcome of the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement. The Gulf blockade on Qatar formally ended with the al Ula summit in January this year, easing - albeit not completely eliminating - tensions within the GCC.
Mindful of the extent to which Riyadh-Doha relations deteriorated after the blockade began, it is significant that Qatar is the third leg of MBS’s tour. Not long ago, the idea of him visiting Doha was simply unthinkable. Thus, the Crown Prince’s first visit since the crisis will unquestionably mark an important moment in the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement.
But why has MBS been so intent on patching everything up with Doha? There are numerous factors in play, but fear of Iran was a critical factor behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to become the main agent behind the al Ula summit.
Put simply, the leadership in Riyadh decided that establishing a stronger Gulf Arab bloc vis-a-vis Iran needed to be prioritised above pressuring Doha into adopting policies more amenable to the worldviews of Qatar’s immediate neighbours on the Arabian Peninsula. Today, MBS’s Gulf tour reflects a continuation of Saudi efforts to bring GCC states closer to a unified stance in relation to the Islamic Republic.
No matter what comes out of the nuclear talks in Vienna, the Saudi Crown Prince will want to see the GCC members enhance coordination on Iran-related issues. If the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is revived, Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf would still have serious concerns about non-nuclear issues that the JCPOA does not address. These include Iran’s support for certain non-state actors in the Arab world like Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, plus Tehran’s ballistic missile activity. Iranian drones in the Middle East are also a growing concern in Gulf Arab capitals.
At the same time, if the Vienna talks fail to reconstitute the 2015 nuclear accord, the risks of a military confrontation are higher. Any war in the Gulf involving the US and Iran would inevitably leave all the Gulf Arab states vulnerable to extremely dangerous scenarios.
“Obviously there is an urgent need to unify, insofar as possible, or at least better coordinate, the GCC stance towards Iran, particularly given the apparent imminent collapse of the indirect nuclear negotiations in Vienna,” Dr Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TRT World.
“Assuming that there is a sustained failure in efforts to revive the JCPOA, it's likely that Washington and its regional allies will have to shift to a more comprehensive containment strategy regarding Iran.”
With each member of the GCC counting on the US as its security guarantor, Gulf Arab officials are undeniably worried about the costs of continuing to rely on Washington as a key strategic partner, particularly in the aftermath of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal this year.
But GCC officials questioning the wisdom of remaining so dependent on the US as a defence partner goes back years and precedes the Biden presidency. Even when the Trump administration was imposing “maximum pressure” on Tehran, Washington let down the Saudis in the face of destabilising Iranian conduct, at least in the eyes of Riyadh.
Dr Ibish explained: “[The Iranian attack on] key Saudi Aramco facilities during the Trump administration which went unanswered was an inflection point for many of the states, indicating that the kind of security guarantees in place since the ‘Carter doctrine’ assurances no longer apply, and that a response to military provocations in the Gulf region are likely only to be triggered in the event of a full-scale attack on one of these countries or the deaths of Americans.”
Other experts agree. Dr David Roberts, an academic based at King's College London's defence studies department, explained that in the aftermath of the September 2019 Aramco attacks: “The UAE [and other Gulf Arab states] underwent a fundamental recalculation of regional relations after the US Emperor's clothes were revealed to be missing at a most inopportune moment.”
As Dr Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East programme at the Quincy Institute, told TRT World: “In general, the mood in the Gulf seems to reflect awareness that these countries cannot count on the US as a security guarantor, and so they need to work out a modus vivendi among themselves.”
Today, each GCC member has its own bilateral relationship and unique interests vis-a-vis Tehran. This reality will probably challenge the Saudi leadership when trying to form a united Gulf Arab front against the Islamic Republic.
That said, with Riyadh embracing a less hawkish approach to Iran and Abu Dhabi pursuing its own dialogue with Tehran, the Saudi and Emirati leadership will possibly find Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar’s more diplomatic approaches to their Persian neighbour less problematic than before. In any event, despite the GCC’s lack of any consensus on how to best interact with Tehran, there is a general sense among Gulf Arab states that, as Dr Ibish argued: “Outreach is an important element of de-escalation.”
Gulf officials might have low expectations about what can be achieved from Saudi-Iranian dialogue, which began eight months ago in Iraq. Nonetheless, there is awareness in the GCC that engaging Tehran is the most pragmatic way to proceed.
Iran will be a permanent neighbour and not talking to Tehran will not lead to any long-term stability. The Gulf Arab leaders understand that they can’t sit around and wait for American leadership to drive any meaningful engagement between GCC states and the Islamic Republic. Countries in the Gulf are taking the initiative.
Within this context, the leadership in Riyadh is seeking to find out how the Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies can best work together within the framework of a recently reconciled GCC to prepare for practically any scenario involving Iran, the JCPOA, and the most delicate regional issues pitting Riyadh and Tehran against each other.