On the eve of the GCC summit in Kuwait last year, Saudi-Omani differences came out into the open, with the Iranian issue being the main reason for the dispute. Now, on the eve of the Arab summit in Kuwait next week, a development unprecedented in the history of the GCC has taken place, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Qatar, primarily to protest the latter's role in Egypt. These are not minor differences inside the Gulf grouping, which comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. At issue are the conflicting policies by the six countries, which had once set for themselves the joint goal of building a Gulf Union similar to the European Union, which has a single representative of European foreign policy.
The Arab summit, which will be held on March 15, will be followed by President Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh on March 28, where he will hold meetings with GCC leaders in addition to his bilateral meetings with the Saudi king. Obama's visit follows Russia's absorption of the Crimea, and subsequent U.S. and European sanctions on Russia that will definitely aggravate the climate of confrontation. The deterioration in American-Russian relations will no doubt cast a shadow on the Arab summit, the American-Saudi summit, and the American-Gulf summit, at least as a result of reduced American-Russian accords that would have led to a grand bargain.
This is a radical development that will impact the agenda of the Arab summit, Gulf propositions to the U.S. president, and also Iranian calculations. While the events in Ukraine are not at all minor, the major policies of the Arab countries must not get ahead of themselves and conclude that American-Arab and American-Gulf relations would suddenly be elevated to new levels or that American-Iranian relations would collapse. But the Ukrainian developments should no doubt be taken into account when preparing for future summits, because they will echo in more than one Arab country, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, where Russian-Iranian cooperation is poised to intensify.
The Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah will probably succeed in containing differences between GCC countries and stop them from dominating the Arab summit. Prior to the GCC summit, Sheikh Sabah convened a tripartite summit with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Qatar's new young Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. Understandings were reached with the bottom line being that Qatar should scale back its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE see as a security and strategic threat in Egypt and other Arab countries.
The Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini charge against Qatar is that the latter has not honored its pledge not to open its doors to Gulf dissidents, that it did not stop aiding the Muslim Brotherhood in various ways, and that it did not halt its campaign against Egypt, after the ouster of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood administration.
The Kuwaiti mediation efforts will seek to tone down the falling out instead of solving it radically in the few days leading up to the Arab summit. Kuwait will try to convince Qatar to keep a low profile instead of escalating in the media against the administration in Egypt, which Qatar accuses of carrying a "coup" against the Muslim Brotherhood, vowing to undermine it. On the other hand, the Kuwaitis will seek to ensure that the Egyptian leadership does not carry requests to the Arab summit to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, since such a move would cause the summit to unravel and would institutionalize Arab divisions.
In other words, at best, an agreement will be reached whereby silence would be chosen over a loud campaign. To be sure, at this juncture, it is not required of Qatar to be positive in the sense of fully complying with the Saudi and Emirati narrative in Egypt; what is required of it instead is not to be negative.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain must enter into an in-depth dialogue with Qatar over Egypt and also Iran. For one thing, Qatar stands accused of sympathizing with pro-Iranian Gulf factions and encouraging them to carry out acts that the three countries see as a threat to their security and stability.
Egypt has become a crucial matter for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and is also important for the rest of the GCC countries in varying degrees. Riyadh believes that Doha must not undermine the administration in Cairo, because this would mean undermining the liberal, non-Nasserist, non-Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Egypt. Liberal and moderate Egypt is at the core of Gulf interests. Today, Egypt represents a major weight and a fundamental cornerstone for an Arab presence in the regional balance of power.
For these reasons, Saudi policy is strict with Qatar when it comes to Egypt. Saudi is equally determined - together with the UAE - to thwart all efforts to resurrect the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab landscape, be they Qatari or U.S.-backed efforts.
Because the Obama administration continues to be seen by many Egyptians and Gulf stakeholders as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, today as yesterday, the talks with President Obama will definitely tackle the Egyptian question, with a lot of firmness and determination.
The Saudi and Emirati determination could lead to a Qatari pushback. In that case, a crack will emerge in the foundations of the GCC. If Qatar refuses to endorse the Saudi and Emirati position on Egypt during talks with Obama, there will be a rift in the Gulf ranks in the first meeting between the GCC and the U.S. president.
The Iranian question may become the other threat to the cohesion of the GCC, not necessarily through Qatar, but possibly through Oman, which has a special relation with Iran in the midst of a Saudi-Iranian dispute. Saudi-Omani relations carry many layers of tension because of Riyadh's insistence on establishing a union for the six countries and Muscat's opposition to the idea, and also because of Saudi Arabia's objection to the Iranian role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, compared to Oman's near complete indulgence of that role.
Iraq is not only a source of concern for the Gulf countries, but also for the Arab summit. The Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict is raging, and the Iranian grip on Iraq is tightening through Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is clinging to his post and wants it for another term. Today, Iraq is the Iranian gateway to Syria. Both Syria and Iraq now orbit Iran instead of the Arab world, of which they were the heart and core.
The Arab summit may overlook this reality to avoid confrontation. It might determine that it is best for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to attend, because if does he would obstruct and undermine it. The summit might find it helpful if Maliki does not attend either, because he is now swimming against the Arab current.
All this does not negate the need for the Arab summit to sincerely and realistically tackle the issue of Syria and Iraq's split from the Arab fold, instead joining forces with Iran. This development has important implications, and it would be imprudent to pretend they are marginal or transient.
The Arab summit must launch a "thinking workshop" focusing on what is happening in Iraq and Syria, and what it will entail for Lebanon as a result of its political and geographical reality as a neighbor of Syria under the influence of Iran, thanks to Hezbollah. If the Arab summit decides that nothing can be done and cedes Iraq and Syria from the Arab umbrella, then the implications of this admission would be extremely important. If it decides it has options to bring back Iraq and Syria to the Arab identity, then it must develop a strategy on how to co-opt these two important nations back to the Arab fold.
At this juncture, the Arab summit, the American-Saudi summit, and the American-Gulf summit will remain bleary and unfocused on the Syrian question, unless important decisions are made.
It is clear now that the Iranian and Russian strategy seeks to ensure the election of Bashar al-Assad for another 7-year term, by insisting on holding the presidential election in June this year. This election effectively demolishes the Geneva 2 process, aimed at establishing a transitional governing body with full powers.
From the outset, Tehran has made it clear that its objective is to keep Assad in power until the election in 2014, and now, Iran is clear in its claim that the election would take place on time. From the outset too, Tehran made it clear that it did not accept the authority of the Geneva communiqué, and hence, opposed creating a transitional authority that would replace Assad. For this reason, it refused to endorse Geneva 1 as a condition for attending Geneva 2 in Montreux.
For its part, Russia has been evasive, agreeing then reneging on Geneva 1. Russia wagered on the failure to convene Geneva 2; when the conference went ahead, Russia forced in counterterrorism as a priority in a bid to hinder it. Russia claimed that it did not cling to Assad in power, but now, Russia wants to hold a presidential vote to get him re-elected.
Joint UN-Arab Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi now understands that his faith that an American-Russian accord would push things in favor of a political solution in Syria is now weaker. He understands that holding presidential elections in Syria means the end of Geneva 2. When he spoke about this in public, Damascus turned against him and accused him of interfering in its internal affairs. Now, with the developments in Ukraine, Brahimi realizes that American-Russian accord has reached an impasse.
These facts require new and different Arab strategies. If Saudi policy is about to acknowledge that Assad is going to remain in power, then let it make this clear. If it is determined to change the regime in Syria at any cost, then let it produce a strategy to counter that of Iran, by providing potent weapons to the opposition, with or without Washington's consent.
What matters is that no party should think that "victory" in Syria lies in further "Afghanization" there. This country has paid enough a price for inadequate and feckless policies. It is time for decisiveness, whether to accept the fait accompli no matter how objectionable Assad is, to upend the military equation in earnest, or to work hard for radical accord with Iran.
Barack Obama may prefer the tiresome status quo, and could welcome a shift in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Ultimately, Obama will not become directly involved in the Syrian arena no matter how bad his relationship with Russia becomes, and regardless of whether Moscow and Tehran decide that their victory in Syria is an absolute priority for them in the Arab region.
The Arab summit may not put Syria at the top of its priorities, except rhetorically and emotionally. The Saudi-American summit requires an in-depth consideration of available practical options, rather than "patching over" differences and pretending that waters are back under the bridge. Syria is at the forefront of the challenges.
Perhaps the outcome of the American-Gulf summit or the American-Saudi summit will be accord over the need to back Egypt together, and the conviction that patience is needed in Syria, in parallel with measures to pull the rug from under the feet of the terrorist and extremist forces that have hijacked the Syrian revolution. However, it is important for the Syrian people not to be asked, through the moderate opposition, to fight a war with the terrorist forces to satisfy American priorities, as this would be another suicidal mission imposed a people whose country has paid the price for terrible local, regional, and international mistakes.
Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi