Iran's aggressions the focus of 'emergency' Arab summit

Iran's aggressions the focus of 'emergency' Arab summit
© FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

What’s the collective noun for a group of Arab leaders? A summit. What’s the distinguishing feature of an Arab summit? Cynics would say there isn’t one. It’s a long time since a notable decision was made at such a meeting.

But this time it might be different. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has called for a conference to be held in the holy city of Mecca on May 30 to discuss last week’s attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz and drone attacks on the kingdom’s main east-west domestic strategic pipeline.  Reporting on the official invitation sent to Arab leaders, the Saudi Press Agency linked the pipeline attacks to “terrorist Houthi militias [in Yemen], backed by Iran.”

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Coming a few days after a United Arab Emirates (UAE) minister called for a “de-escalation” of the crisis, the announced plan for an emergency summit, specifically mentioning Iran, suggests the crisis may be warming up again. And lots can happen in the intervening few days. On Sunday, a lone rocket landed near the American embassy in Baghdad, apparently fired from a distant suburb. Was it a random attack by an armed group, or a signal from Tehran, using a proxy militia, to remind Uncle Sam of his vulnerabilities?

Actually, there are two summits being planned: one for members of the Arab League, whose definition of “Arab” stretches from Mauritania to the Comoros Islands. The other summit is for Gulf countries, a description that does not include Iran, of course, but this time doesn’t appear to involve Qatar, either. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have been isolating Doha, economically and diplomatically, since mid-2017 for a litany of reasons, many of which people have forgotten. A Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said Monday that the small, gas-rich state has not been invited to either summit.

There isn’t 100 percent certainty that the summit will happen. Arab summits typically happen once a year, usually in March. (This year it was held on April 1 in Tunisia, though there also was a joint summit with European leaders in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in February.) Procedurally, any additional summit is an “emergency” meeting and takes place only if a member state submits a request for one and it is approved by two-thirds of the member states. (There are 22 members of the Arab League, although Syria is suspended. Also there is a somewhat curious collection of observer states, which do not have voting rights — Brazil, Eritrea, India, Venezuela and Armenia.)

Given the prospect of the summit being a show-trial of Iran, however merited, some countries likely will seek the opportunity to absent themselves or send a lesser representative than their president or ruler. Several countries may not like Iran and its regional misbehavior but may prefer to avoid a confrontational or condemning stance. Invited or not, Qatar fits into this category, and perhaps Oman as well.

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Lebanon has a particular problem, other than part of its government is pro-Iran Hezbollah: President Michel Aoun is a Christian and so cannot go to Mecca. The latest news is that Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend instead, a dubious honor for him because of the experience of being forced to resign while visiting Riyadh in 2017 by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS. (Hariri “unresigned” as soon as he got back to Lebanon.)

Given MbS’s centrality to the government of Saudi Arabia these days, it will be interesting to learn whether the summit is his idea or was concocted by courtiers of the aged king. The use of the phrase “aggressions and their consequences” in the initial announcement suggests MbS, who is notorious for his diplomatic pugnacity, was involved; the king is more benign. As it is, MbS likely will have to be the dominant figure in Mecca if he wants the summit to be a success, even if he has to also visually play the role of dutiful son. When King Salman spoke in Sharm el-Sheikh in February, he lost his place in his text and mispronounced words — embarrassing moments that were broadcast live across the Arab world.

Another side issue will be catering arrangements. The fasting month of Ramadan does not finish until early June, so the Mecca meetings may be scheduled for the hours of darkness. (During Ramadan, Muslims eat one meal just before dawn and one just after sunset, but none during daylight hours.)

As if this international meeting did not present enough challenges, another Middle East-focused meeting was announced by the White House on Sunday. On June 25-26 in the Gulf island state of Bahrain, there is to be a “Peace to Prosperity” conference attended by business people and government officials with the declared aim of achieving Palestinian prosperity. It is part of President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE’s “deal of the century” plan for Middle East peace.

The Palestinian leadership already has said it will not attend because it was not consulted, and no party is entitled to negotiate on its behalf. Representatives of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon apparently are being invited, as well as the other Gulf states and perhaps Israel. According to the buzz, this meeting will include Qatar — whether because of, or despite, its financial aid to the Iran-supported, Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is not clear.

Welcome to the Middle East, which, even before unexpected events, looks to be a very busy place for the next few weeks.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.