January 17, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 416

The Collapse of the Saudi Sunni Bloc against Iran's Aspirations for Regional Hegemony in the Gulf

January 17, 2008 | By Yigal Carmon, A. Savyon, Y. Yehoshua, Yossi Mansharof, and I. Rapoport*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 416

The Disintegration of the Saudi Sunni Bloc

For the past two years, the Gulf states have been part of a Sunni bloc established by Saudi Arabia to counter Iran's aspirations for regional hegemony. During this period, Saudi Arabia made efforts to distance Iran from "Arab affairs," while the Gulf states were already in political conflict with Iran over the issue of the three islands (Greater and Lesser Tunb, and Abu Moussa) that Iran had forcefully seized from the UAE in 1971, and following recent statements by senior Iranian leaders threatening Bahrain's sovereignty.[1] Some in Saudi Arabia even called on the Gulf states to form a military alliance against Iran.[2] This Gulf policy vis-à-vis Iran was in line with U.S. efforts to isolate it in both the regional and the international arenas.

Qatar is the only Gulf state that has refrained from cooperating with the Saudi-Gulf bloc. In fact, for the past decade, it has consistently taken an anti-Saudi line, and has allied itself with the opposing Iranian-Syrian axis. As part of this axis, it supported Hizbullah in the U.N. Security Council by working to block Resolution 1701, and, unlike other GCC states, it refrained from condemning the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Qatar also made efforts to prevent the isolation of Syria by being the only Arab country to abstain in the vote over Security Council Resolution 1737 that would establish an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination. In addition, the Qatari government TV station Al-Jazeera consistently attacked Saudi Arabia and supported Iran and Syria, as well as their proxies Hizbullah and Hamas.

The Saudi-Gulf bloc collapsed about six weeks ago when Qatar, in an unprecedented move and without consulting the other Gulf states, invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Doha. (The Saudi magazine Al-Majalla called this collapse "the end of the American game."[3]) The Gulf states, surprised but acquiescent, accepted this Iranian-Qatari dictate, albeit grudgingly - despite the fact that Iran had not made any placatory statements regarding its nuclear program, the issue of the three islands, or the threats recently made by Iranian leaders against Bahrain.

The disintegration of the bloc was also the result of two additional factors. The first was the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate report, released by President Bush during the GCC summit, which assessed that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program. The report, which lifted the threat of an American military attack on Iran, was publicly seen as an Iranian victory, and allowed Iran to take a more aggressive political tack vis-à-vis the Gulf states. As part of this, Ahmadinejad presented at the GCC summit a 12-point program of Iranian-Gulf economic and military cooperation.

The second factor contributing to the collapse of the bloc was the growing concern in the Gulf that the very publication of the NIE report, as well as the U.S.-Iran negotiations over the Iraqi issue, indicated a shift in U.S. policy towards an understanding with Iran, which would come at the expense of the Gulf states' interests.

Though the Gulf states responded coolly to Ahmadinejad's proposals at the summit, and though they protested that, in his speech, he had failed to allay their concerns over Iran's aspirations for regional hegemony, and had referred to the Gulf as "Persian" rather than "Arabian," the Iranian president did manage to achieve his aim; at the summit, several senior Gulf officials spoke of strengthening relations with Iran.

The American reaction to the collapse of the Saudi-Gulf bloc was to dispatch U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the Gulf for an immediate visit, during which he repeated his call to the Gulf states to unite and to force Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment.

The Saudi reaction to the collapse, on the other hand, was hesitant and unclear. By inviting Ahmadinejad to the summit, Qatar had breached its agreement with Saudi Arabia to refrain from steps that go against the consensus within the Arab League.[4] But despite this, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal expressed support for the invitation; moreover, following the summit, Saudi King 'Abdallah invited Ahmadinejad to attend the Hajj ceremonies in Mecca. The only Saudi criticism of Ahmadinejad's invitation to the GCC summit came from the editor of the Saudi pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed.[5]

The collapse of the Saudi-Gulf bloc did not change the Gulf states' position towards the U.S. Nor can Iran attain real hegemony over the region at the present time, due to its precarious economic situation, and due to the fact that the Gulf states' governments are predominantly Arab and Sunni. Nevertheless, spokesmen for the Iranian regime have capitalized on the events of the past two months, presenting them as a historic turning point in Iran-Gulf relations, as a change in the political power balance in the Gulf, and as a significant achievement of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, which, they said, had proven that Iran cannot be isolated in either the regional or the international arena.

The disintegration of the Saudi-Gulf front may impact the future willingness of the Gulf states to be part of a pro-American front in the region. Voices in the Gulf have expressed concern over the inconsistency of U.S. policy, and have questioned whether the Gulf states can rely on the defense of the U.S., suggesting that these states should have an independent policy towards Iran, rather than being aligned solely with the U.S.[6]

The Qatari Role in the Collapse of the Saudi-Gulf Bloc

Qatar and Iran attempted to obscure the circumstances of Ahmadinejad's invitation to the GCC summit, but it soon became clear that the invitation had been extended by Qatar in response to a request by Iran, and without consulting the rest of the Gulf states. During the first day of the summit, Ahmadinejad said at a press conference that he had come on an official invitation by Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani, and added: "What difference does it make if one requests to be present [at the summit] or if one receives an invitation? The important thing is that we are here and that we are taking part in the summit."[7]

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Aal Thani said that the invitation had been extended "as part of the effort to conduct a constructive dialogue with an important neighbor," and that forging stable relations with Iran would serve the interests of the Gulf states.[8] He added: "I do not believe that we can solve our problems by cutting Iran off from the region, since it is an important player."[9]

Throughout the summit, Qatar continued its effort to moderate the furious reactions of some Gulf states to Ahmadinejad's invitation. To allay the anger of the UAE leaders, Qatar arranged a meeting between the UAE president and his Iranian counterpart, as well as between the foreign ministers of the two countries.[10] Furthermore, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim defended Ahmadinejad's use of the term "Persian Gulf" rather than "Arabian Gulf" in his speech at the GCC summit, stating that "the Arabian Gulf has historically been called 'the Persian Gulf,' 'the Arabian Gulf' being a modern term."[11]

The Qatari media also published articles in praise of the invitation. For example, columnist Fawwaz Al-'Ajmi wrote in the Qatari daily Al-Sharq: "The invitation to the Iranian president... was a timely, wise and sensible [move]... since Iran is a neighboring Muslim country, and the wellbeing and prosperity of its Muslim people has a positive impact on the peoples of the Gulf states... [We] have the same enemy, and our goal must also be the same... Moreover, Iran's vigor is its neighbors' [economic] vigor, and its military power must support and complement that of its brothers in the Gulf..."[12]

The rest of the Gulf states acquiesced to Qatar's dictate, as evident from the official statements issued Gulf officials. Bahraini Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Aal Khalifa spoke of "Gulf-Iran rapprochement... which strengthens the security in the region and enhances its stability."[13] Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin 'Alawi bin 'Abdallah, during his visit to Iran, spoke about "a new chapter in cooperation between Iran and the GCC states."[14]

GCC Secretary-General 'Abd Al-Rahman bin Hamed Al-'Atiyya likewise made favorable remarks about the latest developments, stating that the Gulf states would like to "dissociate the military aspect" from Iran's nuclear issue, and that the GCC was seeking solutions that would lead to security and stability, as well as to dialogue as a means of resolving the crisis."[15] Al-'Atiyya further stated that Ahmadinejad's invitation to the Hajj ceremony pointed to a "genuine desire" on the part of the Gulf states "to strengthen Islamic solidarity."[16]

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal likewise expressed no reservations about the invitation, pointing out that the country hosting [the summit] was free to invite whomever it wished.[17] However, when asked to comment on the suggestions made by Ahmadinejad at the summit, Al-Faisal was more circumspect, observing that while they were conducive to economic cooperation in the region, "other issues which have remained unsolved must also be taken into consideration, [including] Iran's nuclear dossier and the UAE islands currently under Iranian occupation - since these are important issues that form the basis for economic collaboration and [general] cooperation between Iran and the GCC states."[18]

In contrast to the statements made by the Gulf officials, the Gulf media published numerous reports of dissatisfaction with Qatar's moves. Al-Siyassa reported that the majority of Gulf leaders were not happy with the Iranian president's appearance at the summit, seeing his invitation as a Qatari attempt to strengthen its ties with Iran at the expense of other Gulf states.[19] The Foreign Minister of a Gulf state told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "No one consulted with us... We found out about [the invitation] from the media." He added that, in the Gulf, there were reservations concerning Ahmadinejad's participation, "especially since it had been decided without any preliminary inter-Gulf coordination."[20] Kuwaiti MP Khudhayr Al-'Anzi told Al-Arabiya TV that Ahmadinejad's presence at the summit had been "a manipulation that had served Ahmadinejad himself," and that "[Ahmadinejad's] speeches about the Persian Gulf were seen as a provocation."[21] In a similar vein, a Bahraini diplomat told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa that it was the UAE leaders who were most outraged by Ahmadinejad's presence at the summit, in light of the conflict over Iran's occupation of the three islands.[22]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that, following the controversy over the Iranian president's invitation, a closed session had been held during the summit over the need for an official body that would be in charge of inviting heads of state to future Gulf summits.[23]

Kuwaiti columnist Nasser Al-'Utaibi wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa that Iran's intentions were not clear and that it was not to be trusted: "...We can still feel the duplicity of Iran's political message. Ahmadinejad, in his speech [at the summit], unjustifiably repeated [the term] 'the Persian Gulf.' In addition, he did not mention the issue of the [three] islands belonging to UAE which are still under Iran's occupation... The issue of Iran's nuclear program still remains unclear. We cannot understand why a country rich in oil and natural gas would insist on a nuclear program, while having enormous energy sources at its disposal... Is it trying to [develop] a weapon, in order to control the Arab Gulf states? Is it trying to blackmail the small Gulf states into submitting to its claims and its policy, as well as its religious, political, ideological and practical extremism?..."[24]

The Role of the NIE Report in the Collapse of the Saudi-Gulf Bloc

The NIE report, in addition to being perceived as a significant Iranian victory, removed the threat of a U.S. military attack on Iran, giving rise to concerns in the Gulf that the report could herald a U.S.-Iranian understanding which would compromise the safety of the Gulf states.

Columnist Mazen Hammad wrote in the Qatari daily Al-Watan: "It is clear that there has been an unprecedented breakthrough in the relations between Iran and the Arab states... This breakthrough was made possible by the decrease of international pressure on Iran, which came after the NIE exonerated [Iran] of striving to develop nuclear weapons... Many think that this exoneration supplies the Gulf states and Egypt with the excuse they need in order to improve their relations with Teheran... The Gulf states would not have given Iran all this attention... had they not been convinced that these steps [i.e. the NIE report] were meant to prepare the ground for dialogue between Iran and the U.S."[25]

The deputy editor of the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej, Al-Sayyed Zahra, asked why the Gulf states had changed their attitude towards Iran when the latter had not changed its policies at all. He presented an analysis which suggested that the NIE report was one of the reasons for this development:

"What new development caused the change in Arab-Iranian relations? On what basis has it occurred?... As usual, the Arab governments are giving us, the Arab citizens, no explanations... Therefore, we have no option but to review the assessments of the various analysts and of others who are following this matter...

"After the publication of the report by the NIE report... the Arab states assessed that the time was ripe for greater rapprochement with Iran and for greater openness [towards it]... The Arab governments assessed that the publication of the [NIE] report might indicate a possible change in U.S. policy towards Iran, and this naturally led to greater openness towards this country on the part of the Arabs."

Zahra expressed a concern that future U.S.-Iran dialogue may come at the expense of the Gulf states' interests: "We now see America wooing Iran and invoking the option of diplomatic dialogue [with it], and perhaps even more than that - an agreement that would resolve the crisis. What exactly is behind these [new] positions and moves? And what are the Arabs' interests in this [situation]?... Is it conceivable that, within a couple of days, Iran's position and role in Iraq has changed so radically? Is it conceivable that, within a couple of days, Iran has gone from being one of [the forces] that arm and support the militias [in Iraq] to being [a force] that restrains [these militias] and helps to stabilize the region? Of course it is inconceivable."[26]

Iran Celebrates Its Achievement

Iranian leaders boasted of recent steps taken by Iran to improve relations with the Gulf states, speaking of "a new age of cooperation" and of "a great leap" in Iran-Gulf relations.[27] President Ahmadinejad stated in a recent speech: "I hope that this new process [of Gulf-Iran rapprochement] will expand, benefiting the peoples of the region and keeping the enemies away from it... Iran has already announced that its participation in the GCC summit marks the dawning of a new age in inter-region relations..."[28]

Iranian officials stressed that Iran-Gulf rapprochement was a strategic goal of Iran's. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini stated in his weekly press briefing that cooperation with the Gulf states was a top priority in Iran's foreign policy, saying: "Stronger ties [between Iran and the Gulf states] spell more security, peace, stability and quiet for the Gulf states."[29] Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Al-Jalili said during a visit of the 'Omani foreign minister to Iran that "a Gulf of friendship" was not just a slogan but an Iranian strategic outlook.[30]

The Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, stated in its December 4, 2007 editorial: "The invitation of Ahmadinejad to attend the GCC summit... as a special guest conveys two very important messages to the U.S. and the West. [Firstly, it indicates that] the isolation of Iran is impossible. Secondly, [it indicates that] America's effort to form a united Arab front against Iran has failed... Did the Annapolis circus [manage to] bring about Iran's isolation? Did the Arab states join America's coalition against Iran?... Ahmadinejad's participation in the Doha summit... was a clear sign that America's attempt to divide the countries of the region had failed. We cannot rule out [the possibility] that America will continue to make every effort to harm and isolate Iran, but it will never be able to prevent the emergence of Iran as a symbol of Muslim strength in the Middle East and the world. The path of hostility towards Iran is becoming narrower every day."[31]

Iranian sources also stated that Iran was emerging as a regional power, and was being recognized as such by its Sunni Arab neighbors. The head of the political bureau of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Yadallah Javani, wrote in the weekly Sobh-e Sadeq, the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei circulated among the IRGC: "Iran's political handling of its nuclear [program] presents a new model of nuclear [progress] to the countries of the region. Some of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf are officially announcing that they wish to use nuclear power... Iran [hereby] declares that it is willing to extend any kind of assistance in order to help in the advancement of the Muslim states, especially in the [Gulf] region... In these [new] circumstances, the summit of the GCC - founded 27 years ago with the aim of confronting Iran - feels that a productive relationship with Iran is the best way to safeguard the interests of its member-states, and to guarantee the strategic security of the Persian Gulf..."

"Iran's participation in the summit, for the first time in the history of the GCC, is a turning point in the [history of] the Persian Gulf... The repeated failures of America's Middle East policy have led the region to a new stage... An Islamic Middle East is becoming a reality. America's power in the region is fading... and the age of the American empire in the Middle East is ending. In parallel to these developments, Iran's power is growing... so that everyone [now] sees it as the leading power in the Middle East. Iran's entry into the nuclear club... changes the [power] balance in the Middle East..."[32]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI; I. Rapoport and Y. Mansharof are research fellows at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI

[1] Resentment towards Iran, especially over its "interference in Arab affairs," was expressed on several occasions by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. In a March 2007 interview with Newsweek, he reported that, during a meeting between the two, Saudi King 'Abdallah had bluntly said to President Ahmadinejad: "You are interfering in Arab affairs... Whether you deny it or nor, this is creating bad feelings for Iran and we think you should stop it." Al-Faisal added: "[Iran's] interference in Arab affairs is creating a backlash in the Arab world and in the Muslim world." Newsweek (U.S.), March 29, 2007.

[2] Articles in the Gulf press warned against the Iranian threat, and called on the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to form a united front against it. Saudi columnist Yousef Al-Kuwailit wrote in the daily Al-Riyadh: "Why aren't [the Gulf countries] taking any interest in establishing their own joint [military] force...? Have we forgotten how Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait? Have we forgotten the Persian shah's threats to invade Bahrain, and the reiteration of those same threats by a senior Iranian official just a few weeks ago? Have we forgotten the dispute between Iran and the UAE over the [three] islands? The [conflict] has not yet reached alarming proportions, but we must be careful..." Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 1, 2007. For further details on the call to form a military alliance to repel the Iranian threat, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1769, "Saudi Columnists Call on Gulf States to Form Anti-Iran Front," November 20, 2007, Saudi Columnists Call on Gulf States to Form Anti-Iran Front.

[3] Al-Majalla (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2007.

[4] In a September 2007 meeting with Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani promised to keep his country's mediation efforts - especially with regards to Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon - in line with understandings reached by the GCC and the Arab League. Al-Jarida (Kuwait), September 25, 2007.

[5] Alhomayed wrote that the invitation was a reward that Ahmadinejad did not deserve, and added: "Inviting someone like [former Iranian president Mohammad] Khatami would have been understandable, since he is one of those who call for dialogue and coexistence. Had they invited someone of [Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani's caliber, we might have said that he is a pragmatic leader with whom a political agreement is possible. Ahmadinejad, however, is the opposite, and inviting him only [strengthens] him in Iran vis-à-vis those who claim that he is placing his country at risk." Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 4, 2007.

[6] In an editorial in the UAE daily Al-Ittihad, Columnist Khaled Al-Dakhil wrote that a feeling is emerging in the Gulf that "the American umbrella of defense is not providing the necessary stability in the region, but has actually become a source of instability... There are signs indicating an expected change in the security strategy of the GCC states." Al-Ittihad (UAE), December 12, 2007.

Columnist Dr. 'Abdallah Al-Shaiji likewise described the Gulf states' concern over the inconsistency of U.S. policy, alongside their fears regarding Iran's intentions: "...We have the right to be concerned about [the possibility of a] war, and about [the possibility of an Iran-US.] agreement... We see Washington's oscillations [in its relations with] Tehran... first escalating the nuclear [crisis] and then withdrawing [from its position], warning about the nuclear threat in 2005 and then dismissing this threat, with great confidence, [in 2007]. [We saw America] wooing [Iran], warming its relations with it, and negotiating with it over Iraq. Then [we saw] the failure [of these negotiations] and their [subsequent] renewal... How long will we continue to be pawns and victims in the great chess game that Washington is playing in the Middle East with the last member of the 'Axis of Evil,' which will cease to be regarded [as such] after the U.S. signs an agreement with it...?" Al-Ittihad (UAE), December 17, 2007.

Saudi Columnist 'Adel Al-Tarifi called on the Gulf states not to be complacent about the NIE report, and to "reorganize, [step up] their security and economic cooperation, and exert heavy pressure on Iran..." in order to defuse the Iranian threat. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 19, 2007.

In contrast, others argued that there was no alternative to the alliance with the U.S. Kuwaiti MP Khudhayr Al-'Anzi said, "In light of the security situation, which is on the brink of explosion, and the talk about Iran's progress towards the attainment of nuclear weapons, the Gulf states cannot afford to abandon their security agreements with the U.S. For who would [then] protect our oil [wells]? Who would protect the Gulf economy?... Al-'Arabiya TV, December 4, 2007.

Qatari reformist 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida: "The Gulf states are too sensible, wise, and intelligent to replace someone who has supported them, stood by their side in times of disaster, assisted them in liberating their lands and in delivering themselves from the evil neighbor, and supplied them with means of development and progress... with [Iran]. We must tell Iran clearly and without embellishments: Your nuclear plants are a threat to both us and yourselves, and there is no substitute for our Western and American ally." Al-Jarida (Kuwait), December 10, 2007.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2007.

[8] Al-Raya (Qatar), December 5, 2007.

[9], December 9, 2007.

[10] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), December 5, 2007. A Bahraini diplomat pointed out that, while the Iranians had described these meetings as "friendly," UAE sources had refrained from commenting on them, which was a sign of the Emirates' displeasure.

[11] December 4, 2007.

[12] Al-Sharq (Qatar), December 4, 2007.

[13] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), December 27, 2007.

[14] IRNA (Iran), December 30, 2007.

[15] Bahrain News Agency, December 10, 2007.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), December 16, 2007.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 12, 2007.

[18] Kuwait News Agency (Kuwait), December 11, 2007.

[19] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), December 5, 2007.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 4, 2007.

[21] Al-Arabiya TV, December 6, 2007.

[22] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), December 5, 2007.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 5, 2007.

[24] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), December 7, 2007.

[25] Al-Watan (Qatar), January 2, 2008.

[26] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), January 1, 2008.

[27] Fars (Iran), December 25, 2007.

[28] Kayhan (Iran), December 27, 2007.

[29] IRNA (Iran), December 31, 2007.

[30] IRNA (Iran), December 30, 2007.

[31] Kayhan (Iran), December 4, 2007.

[32] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), December 3, 2007.

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