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Arab unity remains a desert mirage as Islamic world is more divided than ever

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have been belligerent toward Iran, countries like Qatar, Kuwait and Oman have maintained ties with it.

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It was meant to be a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s enormous convening authority in the Islamic world: in a 48-hour period last week, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz hosted a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and emergency meetings of the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Instead, the gatherings in Mecca demonstrated the utter futility of these organizations. The Islamic world is more divided than ever, along fault-lines old and new, and the grandees who answered King Salman’s summons could scarcely be bothered to discuss any of the problems, much less offer solutions.

Some of this was predictable. The OIC and Arab League have been pointless for decades. They have rarely addressed themselves to the problems of the Muslim world, such as the persecution of Uighurs in China or Rohingyas in Burma—or of its Arab subset, such as the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. They serve no meaningful purpose other than to make statements, usually against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

And sure enough came the barely warmed over OIC bromide issued from Mecca, condemning any recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and calling on member states to take “appropriate measures” against nations that move their embassies. Naturally, the organization declined to define the measures—or insist they be taken by its host against his close ally, the U.S.

Perhaps to spare the blushes of his guests, King Salman announced his “unequivocal rejection of any measures that would prejudice the historical and legal status of Jerusalem.” The only remarkable thing about this statement is that it was delivered with a straight face.

Also readSaudi Arabia makes friends with an old enemy in fight with Iran

The king’s “rejection” might have undermined the chances of the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being drafted by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law—if that plan had any chance of success in the first instance.

Of the two emergency meetings on the sidelines of the OIC summit—both meant to address Iran’s growing threat to the Arab world—the GCC gathering was potentially more interesting. The Council should by rights be a more coherent body than the OIC or the Arab League, since its members are bound by the geography of the Arabian Peninsula as well as ethnicity, faith and history. But its members have been unable to align their interests, especially over Iran.

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have been belligerent toward the Islamic Republic, the other three members—Qatar, Kuwait and Oman—take a more cautious view, maintaining economic relations and diplomatic connections with Iran.

This division widened two years ago this week, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, began an embargo of Qatar—they cited, among other things, the country’s ties to Iran. Qatar quickly overcame the economic restrictions, but Oman and Kuwait were caught in the middle of the internecine face-off. They are acutely aware that they could easily become the next target for an embargo, but they have nonetheless kept up their relations with Qatar—and with Iran.

The complications caused by the Gulf feud also undermine U.S. interests in the region, the more so because of the confrontation with Iran. If President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic is to succeed, it will require full-throated GCC support.

What’s more, there are some in the Trump administration who entertain the fantasy of an “Arab NATO,” to brandish against Iran. This would require the militaries of the six GCC countries, plus those of Egypt and Jordan, to work closely with each other. Leave aside the inconvenient reality that these forces are more comfortable taking on unarmed demonstrators than enemies who shoot back—witness their thorough incompetence in Yemen—such an alliance is hard to pull off when the Gulf nations are busy watching each other as if it was the climax of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Also readThe winner from Trump’s Iran sanctions? Saudi Arabia

That’s why there was a frisson of excitement in foreign-policy circles ahead of the Mecca meetings when Qatar announced that its Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani, would attend. Could this be the start of a reconciliation?

No, it couldn’t. The Saudis, keen to project a united front against Iran, seem to have paid little attention to the concerns of Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said there was no consensus. The statements issued after the meetings, he said, “condemned Iran but did not refer to a moderate policy to speak with Tehran.”

Over the next few days, the angry rhetoric will escalate: the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini group will accuse Qatar of sabotaging unity efforts, and the Qataris will accuse the troika of reckless belligerence. The Kuwaitis and Omanis will, in all likelihood, maintain an awkward silence.

What will not need to be said is that the GCC, like the OIC and the Arab League, is to all intents and purposes, dead. – Bloomberg

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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