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Sun 10 Jan 2016 12:09 PM

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Focus: the different reactions of the six Gulf states, the issues they face from the fallout of the Saudi-Iran ‘cold war’

Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr this month has sparked a diplomatic crisis that shows little sign of abating, and which also exposes the different socio-political priorities facing the six Gulf state members

Focus: the different reactions of the six Gulf states, the issues they face from the fallout of the Saudi-Iran ‘cold war’
(From L-R) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani of Bahrain and foreign ministers Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah of Kuwait, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah of Qatar, Yusuf bin Alawi of Oman, Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia, Khalid Bin Ahmad al-Khalifa of Bahrain and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the Emirates pose for a family photo as they meet for a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) extraordinary meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on January 9, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr on January 2, has sparked a diplomatic crisis that shows little sign of abating, and which also exposes the different socio-political priorities facing the six Gulf state members.

Tensions between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and the conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia have escalated since Saudi executed Al Nimr, an opponent of the ruling family who called for greater rights for the Shi’ite minority.

Protestors stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran the following morning in retalian. In response, Saudi itself, along with Bahrain, broke off ties with Iran later in the week, while the UAE downgraded its relations and Kuwait and Qatar recalled their ambassadors.

On Thursday, Iran was reported to have banned all imports from Saudi Arabia, and over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister issued a formal complaint to the United Nations about the kingdom’s “provocations” towards Tehran.

The dispute has had a further economic impact – the oil price fell to its lowest in 11 years on Wednesday, a drop of around 2 percent, as the dispute was seen as eradicating any chance of the main oil producers cooperating to cut production.

At an extraordinary general meeting of the GCC Ministerial Council on Friday, members pledged to draw up a resolution condemning “Iranian aggression”, according to the UAE’s state news agency WAM.

However, this is unlikely to be straightforward as each Gulf country has different concerns regarding its relationship with Iran and its attitude to the Shi’ite-Sunni split.

Arabian Business examines GCC responses to the dispute and the likely impact on each state.

UAE – The country’s reaction is complicated by the contrasting interests of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. On the one hand, Dubai has been vocal about its hopes that the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran will open the door for greater trade links between the two. The UAE’s DP World is in advanced discussions with Iran about starting port operations there. Meanwhile, Dubai Expo2020 is approaching, and the emirate is keen to promote a level of neutrality in its business dealings to minimise the commercial impact of any Gulf-wide dispute.

On the other hand, Abu Dhabi typically adopts a more political stance in its attitude towards Iran, and is staying firmly on the Saudi side of the argument as one of the kingdom’s closest allies. “Abu Dhabi perceives Iran as a trouble maker, along with Yemen and the Levant,” said UAE-based political commentator Theodore Karasik. “But it will be interesting to see whether the emirate sustains this policy given that it is trying to reset its obligations in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.” The UAE is assessing the risks of increased military involvement in the Yemeni conflict, as it has taken its toll on UAE troops. Abu Dhabi must also consider how an ongoing feud could hit oil prices, given its significant oil interests.

Bahrain - Though Bahrain has a Shi’ite-majority population, its king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, is Sunni, and Bahrain is Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in the region. Hence, the country is likely do to exactly what Saudi does, said Karasik. Bahrain’s minister of media affairs last week gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country and it subsequently cut all ties with Iran. Struggling as it is to resolve conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites in its own country, with repeated outbreaks of violence between the two groups and threats on its leadership, Bahrain was deeply embroiled in sectarian unrest even before the execution of Al Nimr, and the dispute only threatens to further complicate politics in the country. Last week, hundreds of Shi’ites in Bahrain took to the streets – a major concern for the cash-strapped state that is already struggling to plug a huge budget deficit with minimal disruption to its society.

Kuwait – Kuwait was among the GCC countries that recalled their ambassadors to Iran last week in the wake of the diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Like Bahrain, Kuwait is somewhat of a ‘vassel state’ to Saudi Arabia and likely to follow its lead in response to the diplomatic crisis, said Karasik. The country has a tense relationship with Iran anyway – there have been numerous reports of Iranian infiltration and espionage in Kuwait, and vice versa.  In September, Kuwait charged 26 people suspected of links to Iran’s government and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, of plotting attacks against the Gulf state. Meanwhile, like Bahrain, Kuwait also has a large Shi’ite population and the row threatens domestic stability.

Qatar – After several days of staying quiet, Qatar on Wednesday became the latest GCC state to back Saudi Arabia over the dispute by withdrawing its ambassador. The Qatari royal family has a close relationship with the Salman family and will go to great lengths to protect this. Qatar also plays a key role in Saudi Arabia’s 34-country Islamic Military Alliance, which, while primarily intended to fight terrorism, also serves as a Sunni deterrent to Shi’ite-majority Iran. However, a key consideration for Qatar in the coming weeks and months will be its substantial oil interests. Continued tensions between major oil producers Saudi Arabia and Iran could trouble investors and hit prices, since most Saudi oil production comes from its Shi’ite-dominated Eastern Province, noted Kinda Chebib, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International.

Oman – The sultanate publicly condemned Iran’s attacks on the Saudi embassy last week but stopped short of recalling its ambassador or cutting ties. By and large, the sultanate is adopting its “usual Switzerland-type approach” to the divide and will continue to do so because of the continuing reign of Sultan Qaboos, says Karasik. Qaboos was instrumental in orchestrating US-Iran talks that paved the way for last July’s nuclear deal, and the sultanate looks intent on continuing its diplomatic work in Iran by retaining its ambassador there. “Oman is expected to insulate itself from the escalating ‘cold war’ by keeping the Muscat-Tehran relationship intact,” Karasik says. In the latest indication of this commitment, it was reported by Muscat Daily on Sunday that Oman and Iran have agreed to increase direct flights to and from Iran to 28 per week.

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Arabist 4 years ago

I don't see different reactions. I see a unified one,as should be against Tehran interference.