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Wed 15 Jan 2020 10:13 AM

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Iran-US confrontation fosters Gulf Arab unity

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have worked to reduce tensions since the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani and several key henchmen, writes Hussein Ibish

Iran-US confrontation fosters Gulf Arab unity

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman – have worked to reduce tensions since the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani and several key henchmen. Image: AFP

As they breathe a collective sigh of relief that the US and Iran have not stumbled into a war in their backyard, the bickering Gulf Arab countries have been reminded they still have powerful common interests.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman – have worked to reduce tensions since the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani and several key henchmen.

One of the biggest disagreements within the GCC has been over attitudes towards Tehran. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, along with the US and Israel, make up the core of the international coalition opposing the Islamic Republic. Oman, Kuwait and Qatar maintain much better relations with Iran.

Oman has long served as a mediator in disputes with Iran; Muscat hosted some of the initial meetings that eventually produced the 2015 nuclear deal. Kuwait, which has a mixed population of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, is determined not to get dragged into regional disputes, especially of the sectarian kind.

Qatar has been aligned with Sunni Islamists like Turkey’s ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has actively opposed Iran in Syria and Iraq. However, since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an embargo on Qatar in June 2017, Doha has drifted closer to Tehran. In addition to sharing a natural-gas field that provides almost all of Qatar's income, the emirate is now dependent on Iran for commercial air routes and other critical support.

Unsurprisingly, Qatar was quickest off the blocks after the Soleimani killing: its Foreign Minister and Emir made visits to Tehran to express solidarity and condolences. There is widespread speculation that the Reaper drones used in the strike were launched from the US base at Al-Udeid, near Doha. The Qataris were anxious to tell the world, and especially Iran, that they were not a party to the attack. (Incidentally, if Washington and Tehran weren’t sending messages to each other via the Qataris, it would be tantamount to diplomatic malpractice; Doha is unusually both a key US ally and friendly to Iran.)

Similarly, Oman announced a mediation effort, only to quickly conclude there was “no room” for negotiations at present.

More striking were efforts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to calm nerves and contribute to de-escalation. While many have assumed that these two countries, along with Israel, have been pressing the US into a war with Iran, that was never true.

While they welcomed the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on Iran, these countries know that they would be among the first targets Iran would strike in the event of an all-out fight. Last year’s attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities and UAE-related international shipping were stark reminders of their vulnerability.

The UAE’s chief diplomat, Anwar Gargash, made early and repeated, public pleas that all parties put “wisdom, balance and political solutions above confrontation and escalation.” Behind the scenes, the message to Washington was that the UAE has no interest in anybody starting a war with Iran. Last summer, for the first time in years, the UAE dispatched several diplomatic delegations to Iran to reopen dialogue on issues such as maritime security and other matters of mutual concern.

Saudi Arabia repeatedly called for restraint and dispatched deputy defence minister - and former ambassador to the US - Khalid bin Salman, to encourage Washington to de-escalate. Riyadh recently established a new diplomatic back channel to Tehran.

So, after years of bitter bickering and confrontation, the Gulf Arab countries suddenly found themselves operating in concert. This is appropriate, since the GCC was founded in 1981, in large part to deal with the challenges posed to the peninsular states by the then fledgling Islamic Republic.

Iran remains an overarching, unifying threat: for some GCC states, the threat of war is more real than the threat of Iranian hegemony. In practical terms, that might amount to the same thing. All of them have had to develop a more robust conversation with Tehran than previously in recent years.

Another challenge is to keep talking among themselves. Tentative steps have already been taken towards reconciling the split with Qatar, especially since the participation of the national soccer teams of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf Cup in Doha late last year. The differences, especially over Doha’s support for Islamists, are some way from being reconciled, but the combined response to the flare-up between Washington and Tehran shows that, on existential questions, the Gulf Arab states can - and must - act in harmony.

Hussein Ibish is senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.