After Riyadh Summit, Sunni Unity Crumbles*
By Sharmine Narwani
The glowing orb stunt should have been a sign that all was not what it seems. Theatrics, in the world of politics, usually suggest an illusion needs to be spun for audiences somewhere.
A week after U.S. President Donald Trump’s eyesore of a visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the pressing question now is “why?” What was the purpose of convening leaders and representatives of 55 Arab and Muslim nations to greet a U.S. head of state amidst so much pomp, ceremony and an excruciating amount of flashing cameras?
The Riyadh summit had several goals, most of which specifically served Saudi and American political interests.
The American leader’s potential gains were clear: he would score points at this impressive international showing of Muslim leaders who would help counter his anti-Muslim reputation at home. Trump would also be well-compensated in the form of the largest U.S. arms deal in history, a booty he could claim would boost his home economy. The negotiations would take place in the Middle East, at the heart of his fight against “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump would also leave with a blank check for Palestinian-Israel “peace,” bestowed by a Saudi king who has no authority to negotiate anything on behalf of Palestinians. And finally, the U.S. president would piggyback the legitimacy of 55 Arab and Muslim states to craft a Middle East policy that targeted Iran, its allies and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – even though no consensus whatsoever was reached at the summit.
In their eyes, the Saudis scored even bigger. The cash-and-credibility-haemorrhaging Saudis are losing ground in their list of international fights – in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and against Iran. Here was an opportunity to convene leaders and representatives from 55 Arab and Muslim nations (only 33 heads of state showed up) to underscore Saudi Arabia’s position as the custodian of Sunni Islam. For the power-mad Saudis, nothing would showcase their primacy better than the presence of a U.S. president on his first official foreign trip. They forgot, however, that legitimacy is derived from one’s own populations, not from a Western head of state sword-dancing next to one’s king. After the summit, Riyadh would go on to unilaterally craft a declaration, unseen and unapproved by the VIP guests, that claimed to outline the gathering’s foreign policy priorities.
But most importantly, this summit would allow the Saudis – who are terrified at the potential repercussions coming their way from decades of funding global terrorism – to very publicly take cover under the Trump presidency. And the U.S. president, who knows very well that the Saudis are the epicentre of global terror, offered up America’s protection and complicity to secure his doggy bag of treasures.
This generous give-and-take between the Saudis and Americans took place on the day of the summit, amidst much back-slapping. Then, a few days later, the fallout began.
First, Saudi vs. Qatar
This past week, a flurry of media headlines alerted us to the first fissure between summit participants. News reports began emerging that Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had deviated from the Saudi talking points by supporting engagement with Iran and defending resistance groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE retaliated swiftly to this slight by blocking Qatari media outlets, recalling their ambassadors and launching a war of words against Doha.
Why the swift and punishing response toward a fellow member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
Qatar has long struggled to get out from under the shadow of its much larger Persian Gulf neighbour Saudi Arabia and has spent the past dozen years building up media networks, like Al Jazeera, and investing in major Western corporate, think tank, educational and sports brands to project power well beyond its regional stature. The tiny sheikhdom’s biggest coup, however, was to secure the establishment of the U.S. military’s largest regional base on its territory, which allowed Doha to continue provoking its Saudi competitor with little risk of consequence.
Then in 2011, the Qataris put their full weight behind “Arab Spring” efforts to overthrow a slew of Arab governments. Most of the Qatari-backed incoming regimes and opposition activists, however, were Islamists, mainly of the MB variety, which is reviled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Saudis were initially caught off-guard by the swift events sweeping the region, but quickly rallied to mount a region-wide counterrevolution to reverse the political gains of the Qatari- and Turkish-backed MB groups. Saudi operatives funneled manpower, money, and weapons to reestablish Riyadh’s influence. They revived their famed jihadi networks to flood Syria and other places with extremist militants that could tip the balance of power back in its direction.
It wasn’t just Qatar and the MB in Saudi sights – the regional uprisings, particularly in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, threatened to shift the region in a direction that benefited Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional adversary.
In Riyadh ten days ago, the Saudis thought they had struck gold. After eight years of dealing with a somewhat unsympathetic Obama administration, here was Trump acquiescing to their every whim. The Saudi declaration issued at the end of the summit – as well as speeches delivered during the event – struck out at Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas, and promised American cooperation in isolating them. The Saudis were on a high, but they were also mostly alone.
A broad divergence of interests
Aside from the Saudi-Qatari spat, there are countless other differences among summit participants that will scuttle Riyadh’s ambitions.
The anti-MB UAE has stood firmly by Riyadh’s side in condemning Doha but diverges – even within its own borders – on assuming an aggressive position against Iran. Call it Dubai-versus-Abu Dhabi if you will. Dubai, with its large Iranian expat population and significant trade with the Islamic Republic, is less worried about its Persian neighbour. As a 2009 Wikileaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi puts it: “While MbZ (Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi Mohammad bin Zayed) is a hardliner on Iran, there are accommodationists within his own system, especially in Dubai, where the ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (Prime Minister of the UAE) takes a position that is much closer to Qatar’s.”
Other GCC states are even more loathe to confront Iran. Oman has repeatedly ignored Saudi demands to toughen its stance against Iran and remains a key Iranian diplomatic partner in the region. The two states participated in joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman as recently as April, and it was Muscat that hosted the initial secret U.S.-Iran meetings which kick-started the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
GCC member-state Kuwait also remains relatively neutral on Iranian matters. Up to 40% of Kuwaitis are Shiites, and the country has avoided much of the sectarian strife that afflicts Saudi Arabia and now Bahrain. It is to Kuwait that Qatar’s emir has now turned to negotiate peace with the Saudis and UAE in the aftermath of last week’s fallout. The Qataris, who have dealt opportunistically and not ideologically in their regional relations, share the world’s largest gas reserve with Iran, a further incentive to maintain a neutral stance on Tehran.
In fact, most of the Sunni states that attended the Riyadh summit are flat-out furious about the violent sectarianism and extremism that has emerged in the past few years. And many of them blame the Saudis for it.
Last August, an unprecedented conference of 200 leading Sunni clerics from around the world was held in Grozny to determine “who is a Sunni.” Excluded from the gathering were representatives of both the Wahhabi sect (Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s official religion) and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic world is looking to tackle the deviance and sectarianism that has borne groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda – not indulge it, as would be the case if they embraced the Saudi ‘vision’ in Riyadh.
But in an effort to bulldoze through a “Sunni consensus” under the umbrella of “Saudi-American power,” the Saudis ignored every gorilla in that summit room. Not only do many of the meeting’s participants blame the Saudis for unleashing the jihadi genie, but most of them also wouldn’t for a minute look to Saudi ‘leadership’ if it weren’t for Saudi cash. Case in point, Sunni regional giants Turkey and Egypt. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t even show up to Riyadh, citing other engagements. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did attend – he was one of three invited to press his palms upon the ‘glowing orb’ to inaugurate the Saudi counterterrorism-something-or-other.
But more than anything, Sisi was invited to Riyadh as an important set extra – to visually demonstrate that the great Arab state of Egypt was passing the mantle of leadership to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Where the Saudis viewed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a stalwart ally, they see Sisi as nothing of the sort. Sisi may agree with Riyadh on the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he has absolutely no tolerance for Saudi Arabia’s support of terrorist groups throughout the region and has been a right royal pain on the issue of Syria.
Egypt may hanker after the Saudi billions – which it has received in spades for its anti-MB efforts – but Egyptians have little affection for the Saudis and have sparred publicly and privately in recent years and months. Whereas Riyadh could once count on Egyptian troops to support its military incursions, today Cairo has rejected participation in the Saudi-led war against Yemen – alongside another staunch Saudi ally, Pakistan.
The Saudis recently hired Pakistan’s former army chief General Raheel Sharif to head up their 39-nation “Muslim NATO” construct to fight terrorism, but now rumours are rife that he will resign amidst a national uproar over his decision. Pakistanis, like other straight-thinking Muslims, are uncomfortable about the prospect of a military alliance that appears to have been conceived primarily to fight Iran – and Shiites.
Dead On Arrival
On the surface, the purpose of the Riyadh summit was to amass a coalition of like-minded Arab and Muslim partner-states, under a Saudi-American banner, to wage war against terror. In fact, this is a Saudi and American-led initiative created not to tackle terror, but to ‘reframe’ it to encompass political adversaries.
Look out for pundits and politicians spinning these new narratives that Iran, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are equally as dangerous as ISIS and Al-Qaeda – never mind that the former have been around for decades without triggering the global security meltdown spawned by the latter.
In Riyadh, the Americans and Saudis made a great show of jointly announcing two additions to their “terrorism” list – one was a senior Hezbollah official, the other a senior member of ISIS.
This is not the war against terror that the heads of states gathered in Riyadh anticipated. This is a sectarian war, conceived by a sectarian state that has funded, armed and organized the very global terrorism it purports to fight. And every single U.S. administration since the events of 9/11 has acknowledged this direct Saudi role in terror.
In Riyadh, the show went on anyway. But there’s not a person in that room who didn’t understand the game. Forget the ‘Sunni consensus’ after Riyadh. Of the 55 nations represented at the summit, the Saudis will be lucky to retain five.