Saudi Arabia may finally be realising that its marginalisation of Qatar has only strengthened Iran.
The dual summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have just drawn to a close in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, with quite a lot said and probably very little that will be put into action.
However, there were a few interesting developments that may suggest a possible thawing of relations between hosts Saudi Arabia and their estranged fellow GCC member Qatar.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani shook hands with both Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son and heir Mohammed bin Salman. Even a simple handshake would have been unthinkable a year or two ago. While these developments are interesting, it is nonetheless important to note that healing the fracture in the GCC is still some way off.
The threat Iran poses to Saudi Arabia and the sheer pressure it is creating may ultimately force Riyadh to mend fences with Qatar if only to bring the Arab house back to face a more serious menace.
Saudi security concerns are legitimate
Whatever Riyadh’s sins – and there are many – there is much to be said about Saudi Arabia having legitimate concerns about Iran’s behaviour.
Iran has arguably been expanding its opportunistic power grabbing ever since the United States under President George W Bush decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001. They first cooperated with the invasion and then began supporting various actors, including backing the Taliban to this day. However, it was not until the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 that Saudi Arabia began to feel the Iranian threat.
In one fell swoop, one of Iran’s major regional adversaries that were holding back its ambitions was obliterated, and the decades Iran had invested in the Shia, and Kurdish opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein paid immediate dividends.
The vast majority of political movements that were gathered in London before the invasion were linked to Iran, including the hardline Shia Islamist Dawa Party which then provided Iraq with its prime ministers for the next 15 years. The US may have won the invasion of Iraq, but they lost the occupation to Iran.
With Saddam’s Iraq out of the way, Saudi was suddenly faced by a hostile entity that could harm its interests right on its northern border. Iran exploited Iraq as a land bridge to neighbouring Syria, with whom it had long enjoyed friendly relations, further empowering its most famous proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Tehran even helped the barbaric regime of Bashar al Assad when Syrians called for democracy in 2011 and without the help of the Iranians, it is arguable that the Assad regime would have fallen long ago.
As if Tehran’s influence in Sunni and Arab countries just to the north and west of Saudi Arabia was not dangerous enough, including the sectarian atrocities its proxies had committed in each of those countries, Iran then began to look to Saudi’s eastern and southern borders.
Exploiting the Arab Spring, Iran began extending support to Shia protesters in Bahrain particularly after authorities killed protesters at the now destroyed Pearl Roundabout, inflaming sectarian tensions. While this revolt was put down following a Saudi-led intervention and continues to be suppressed, the threat of Iran fomenting instability right next to Saudi’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province causes jitters in Riyadh to this day.
This is of course not forgetting Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have managed to conquer the capital Sanaa and put the internationally recognised government to flight, instigating today’s disastrous Saudi-led intervention.
Using missiles and drones that were undoubtedly developed with Iranian assistance, the Houthis have as recently as last month repeatedly struck targets in both Saudi Arabia and its close ally the United Arab Emirates. Iranian proxies almost entirely strategically encircle Saudi Arabia, so it is no wonder it feels under threat.
Saudi actions are unjustified
However, that does not mean that Saudi Arabia should have carte blanche right to do as it pleases to mitigate the threat it faces from Iran. It is arguable that Riyadh’s actions have enhanced the Iranian threat and not dissipated it.
For instance, the blockade against Qatar is perhaps one of the most ridiculous foreign policy moves the world has yet witnessed by Saudi. Riyadh may well have been angered by Doha’s support for pro-democracy Arab Spring movements, but that does not mean it would make sense for the Saudis and Emiratis to begin accusing Qatar of being Iranian allies.
Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA), funded by the Qataris, was one of the only networks in the Arab world that was routinely covering the atrocities perpetrated by Iran’s proxies in both Iraq and Syria and even had extensive coverage of Hezbollah’s harmful and deeply sectarian actions in Lebanon.
I recall watching countless debate programmes on AJA that pitted pro-Iran figures against anti-Iran intellectuals, journalists, and politicians who asked all the right difficult questions and challenged the notion that Iran was a purveyor of peace and stability in the region.
However, since the unjustified blockade, Qatar’s Arab “brothers” actually forced them directly into the hands of the Iranians who, alongside Turkey, began supplying the small Arab state with food, goods, and other necessities that the GCC had placed an embargo on.
In a tense situation where Qatar is faced with being forced into submission, is it any surprise that Al Jazeera’s coverage has now mainly gone silent on Iran’s actions in the Middle East?
Essentially, and through sheer stupidity, the Saudis and their allies inadvertently silenced the most influential voice highlighting Iran’s misdeeds in the region purely because their anger blinded them that Qatar dared to support the Arab Spring.
Years after the blockade began, Iran is stronger than ever having secured Assad in Syria, further entrenched its forces in Iraq, advanced the technology and strike capability of the Houthis, and gained a valuable partner in Qatar who Washington relies on to backchannel with Tehran.
If Saudi is committed to weakening Iran, it must put aside its differences with Qatar to focus on the more significant threat it faces.
However, with Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Assaf’s statement during the summits that the Qatar crisis can be resolved if Doha returns to the “right path”, a mere handshake between Qatari and Saudi royals will not be enough to bring an end to this diplomatic and strategic stupidity.
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