Arab Gulf countries seek resolution, not conflict in standoff with Iran

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Saudi and Emirati perspectives, like those of the wider Arab Gulf, acknowledge potentially catastrophic consequences of a military conflict involving Iran.

A note of optimism. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio (R) meets with Saudi Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir during the Rome Med 2019, December 6. (AP)

Media reports suggest backdoor dialogue has taken place between Saudi and Iranian officials intended to ease tensions between the regional rivals.

The reports said the two sides discussed confidence-building measures designed to de-escalate tensions and discussed the possibility of a non-aggression agreement.

There is little information to confirm either the reported talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran or possible areas of discussion that may have taken place. However, the possibility of diplomatic activity occurring is a genuine plausibility, even if unlikely.

Iran has been facing growing economic pressures the past 18 months with crippling US sanctions and, in November, some of the largest nationwide protests since Iran’s revolution in 1979 erupted against deteriorating economic conditions.

Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq have been trying to diffuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as more widely between the United States and Iran in the hope that direct talks can be started. Despite having constructive ties on both sides, Pakistan and Iraq have limited sway over either Saudi Arabia or Iran and their efforts are better characterised as facilitation rather than mediation.

Arab Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have been supportive of the American “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran owing to Iran’s regional activities. Earlier this year, oil tankers were attacked in or near UAE waters and attacks on Saudi oil facilities in September rattled markets. The incidents were both pinned on Iran.

The Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels, who are supported by Tehran, has been characterised as a proxy war between the two sides. Iran is seen to be behind the advancing missile and drone capabilities of the rebels that threaten Saudi Arabia and the wider region, including the highly strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait.

In earlier years, Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon also challenged the regional order and its stability with Tehran’s utilisation of armed groups as proxies.

Saudi Arabia is closely aligned with the United States and its Western partners in calling for Iran to change its behaviour, which not only endangers regional stability but calls into question co-existence itself.

At the Mediterranean Dialogues Conference in Rome, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir struck a note of optimism suggesting there “is a possibility to calm down the situation that will be followed by a settlement in Yemen.”

The recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh stressed a need among members to increase military and security co-operation to counter Iran’s growing threat to “the lands of the GCC states, their territorial waters and their economy.”

At the summit’s opening address, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud emphasised the importance of the GCC securing itself against missile attacks from hostile forces and he criticised Iran’s “aggressive policies” that “undermine the stability of neighbouring countries.”

Earlier, King Salman called on Tehran to abandon its “expansionist ideology” that has harmed its own people and long-term interests. Reiterating that Riyadh does not seek war with Iran, King Salman said Iran’s leaders should understand that an international position has formed against its strategic thinking and the only way to overcome Iran’s growing challenges is by transforming its regional behaviour.

At the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate in November, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the region’s crises need to be brought to negotiated ends that are “sincere and sustainable.”

Calling on Iran to join international talks and allay concerns over its nuclear programme, ballistic missiles and regional interference, Gargash warned that the international community “should not fall for the false choice between war on the one hand or a flawed [Iran nuclear agreement] on the other.”

Saudi and Emirati perspectives, like those of the wider Arab Gulf, acknowledge potentially catastrophic consequences of a military conflict involving Iran. That could endanger not only the rapid economic growth and progress of recent years but jeopardise ambitious development plans for those ahead.

As Gargash stressed, escalation with Iran “at this point serves no one” but there is potentially “a path to a deal with Iran that all parties might soon be ready to embark on” that ultimately creates “a new, more stable regional order in which all countries will be able to thrive.”

For Iran, an international deal could pave the road ahead for its re-entry into the global economy, creating opportunities and prosperity for its people at exactly the moment they are most needed. For the Arab Gulf, an international agreement with Iran would enable it to focus on growth plans in a regional environment that is stable and secure rather than one hostage to armed proxies.

Decision-makers in Tehran will need to address the highly contentious Yemen situation by supporting activation of a peace process starting with the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement, ending direct or indirect attacks on Arab Gulf economic and political interests and by disengaging from the regional activities seen by Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf partners as aggressive and destabilising.

Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

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