Cairo: Less than a year after leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) healed a years-long rift between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is touring member states of the six-nation grouping ahead of an annual GCC summit next week in Saudi Arabia. The trip is taking Prince Mohammed to Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had severed diplomatic and transportation links with Qatar in mid-2017.
‘Bonds of fraternity’
Last January, Saudi Arabia hosted in its city of AlUla a GCC summit that ended the prolonged row and infused fresh vigour into the 40-year-old Gulf bloc. The AlUla deal has withstood the test of time.
The GCC leaders have since stepped up efforts to cement the alliance’s ranks amid regional tensions and economic challenges posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The Saudi heir apparent’s current trip could not be more well-timed. The Saudi Council of Ministers said this week that the kingdom is “keen to maintain contacts with GCC countries and bolster bonds of fraternity” with them.
The high-profile tour comes after world powers and Iran ended in Vienna an inconclusive round of negotiations to revive a 2015 nuclear deal that the Gulf countries repeatedly questioned and are pushing for engagement in any new arrangement with Tehran. Iran’s dubious nuclear programme and its perceived impact on regional stability is expected to be a top item on the agenda of a GCC summit that Saudi Arabia is due to host on December 14.
Formulating a uniform GCC stance on a new international deal with Tehran is believed to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s current Gulf tour made against the backdrop of efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region.
Over recent months, Saudi and Iranian officials have held Iraq-mediated exploratory talks, which have yet to make a breakthrough between the two regional powerhouses. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iranians of supplying arms to their Yemeni proxy Al Houthi militia, who have mounted dozens of cross-the border attacks into the Saudi territory.
Relations with Turkey
Meanwhile, Turkey whose relations have soured in recent years with several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, has recently signalled interest in mending ties. Last month, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, made a rare visit to Turkey.
Significantly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week visited Qatar amid speculation that Doha, a close ally of both Turkey and Iran, is seeking to bring about rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh in particular. In the same vein, a thaw has recently been seen in long-strained ties between Egypt, an ally of the UAE and the Saudis, one the one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other, kindling hopes for regional de-escalation, according to experts.
“Efforts made by the Gulf countries have resolved their disagreements and forged their reconciliation based on concessions from all parties,” said Abdelrahman Al Rashed, a Saudi commentator. “Results of this reconciliation have extended to include Egypt and Turkey,” he wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat. “I could not say this also includes Iran with which disagreements are more complicated and related to regional issues such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Still, reducing tensions with Iran-- and not necessarily reconciling with it-- will benefit collective regional calmness.”
Multilateral coming to terms
What matters most, according to Al Rashed, is that this multilateral coming to terms has proved workable. “Eleven months after signing the AlUla Agreement, signs of success loom larger and the entire region has better days ahead,” he predicted.
In a sign of their unity, the GCC countries last October adopted a collective, strong stance during a diplomatic row that erupted after a Lebanese government minister made remarks deemed offensive and misleading over a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
The then Lebanese information minister George Kurdahi triggered an outcry in the Gulf countries after he said that Al Houthis aligned with Iran were fighting in self-defence. His comment sparked diplomatic protests from several Gulf countries that recalled their ambassadors from Beirut. Saudi Arabia, moreover, imposed a blanket ban on Lebanese exports, thus deepening the country’s economic meltdown.
Kurdahi resigned earlier this month prior to a Gulf trip by French President Emmanuel Macron who met the Saudi crown prince in the port city of Jeddah. Both spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a gesture seen as defusing tensions with Lebanon where Iran-allied Hezbollah movement holds sway. The level of such de-escalation is likely to be determined during Prince Mohammed’s talks with Gulf allies.
“The timing of the crown prince’s tour cannot be overemphsised, as it comes after the Gulf reconciliation and prior to the GCC summit,” said Khalid Al Malik, the head of the Gulf Press Union.
“By making this tour, Prince Mohammed aims to foster relations between the Cooperation Council countries and discuss a host of topics of mutual interest to endorse them at the upcoming summit,” added Al Malik, who is also the editor of the Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah.
“They include the Iranian nuclear file, the dangers it poses to the region as well as Iran’s meddling in affairs of some GCC countries and the war between Yemen’s legitimate government and Al Houthis.”