Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Whirlwind diplomacy

Diplomatic efforts are underway to head off rising tensions in the region, writes Doaa El-Bey


Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh (photo: Reuters)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh (photo: Reuters)

Calls for an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League grew in tandem with the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. The Arab League will now hold a meeting on Sunday, following a request by Saudi Arabia that the League convene to discuss “violations” committed by Iran across the region.

“The Arab region is in a state of fragmentation which requires a decisive stand to be taken by all parties. The latest crisis in Lebanon — caused by Saad Al-Hariri’s resignation — came as a shock but it must not be allowed to compound an already very difficult situation. That is the last thing the region needs,” says Rakha Hassan, former assistant to the foreign minister.

The Middle East has been facing calamity ever since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, says Ahmed Youssef, a professor of political science at Cairo University. America’s dismantling of the Iraqi state gave free reign to the spread of terrorism and sectarianism.

“The Arab Spring then contributed to the dismantling of more states — Syria, Libya and Yemen — and opened the doors to Iranian interference in Arab affairs. That led to a vicious circle of yet more sectarianism and polarisation which has now spread to Lebanon,” says Youssef.

The Arab League meeting may serve its purpose if it ends by roundly condemning Iranian interference in Arab states, argues Youssef, though he warns countries like Iraq, Lebanon and even possibly Algeria may have reservations about a strongly worded denunciation. A further problem, he says, would be if the meeting “becomes an arena to exchange accusations or call for unacceptable things like freezing out Lebanon”.

“Then it will lead us nowhere.”

Both Bahrain and the UAE backed the Saudi request, as did Djibouti, the current chair of the Arab League.

Recent weeks have seen simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran boil over, particularly with regards to longstanding differences over Lebanon and Qatar. Riyadh may also have been prompted to request the meeting after a missile attack against the kingdom earlier this month. Saudi Arabia has accused Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen of firing the missile.

In the wake of the missile attack Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman accused Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying rebels with ballistic missiles. In an interview with CNN last week Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir accused Hizbullah of launching the missile from Houthi-held territory.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri embarked on a regional tour this week in the hope of containing the febrile situation and keeping channels of consultation with other Arab states open.

“The tour comes in the framework of ongoing consultations between Egypt and other Arab states over political developments in Lebanon and wider challenges in the region,” said the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman in a statement issued before Shoukri’s tour began.

Shoukri left Egypt on Sunday for three days of whirlwind diplomacy in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

“Egypt is against any escalation in Lebanon that threatens to exacerbate sectarianism or, in the worst case scenario, leads to the disintegration of the state,” says Youssef.

Maintaining the stability of Lebanon is one of the main aims of Shoukri’s tour, says Hassan.

“The war in Syria and its subsequent fragmentation should be a lesson to everyone that they should not interfere in Lebanon. This is probably why Shoukri was keen to end his tour in Saudi Arabia to review and discuss the position of other regional states with Riyadh.”  

In Saudi Arabia, the last leg of his tour, Shoukri met the crown prince. During the meeting, he reiterated the importance of maintaining Arab integration in the face of the present challenges and that Egypt considers the security of the Gulf region as part and parcel of the security of Egypt.

Shoukri’s meeting with his Saudi counterpart Al-Jubeir tackled the stagnation facing the technical talks on the Renaissance Dam. Al-Jubeir underlined the importance of adhering to the Framework Agreement signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in Khartoum in 2015.

The latest regional developments overshadowed Shoukri’s meetings in Oman and Kuwait.

The stance of Kuwait and Oman towards the Qatar crisis differs from that of Egypt, Saudi, UAE and Bahrain, hardly surprising given the two states’ record of serving as mediators between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and between Riyadh and Tehran.

In the UAE Shoukri met with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and delivered a message from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The two officials also discussed Al-Hariri’s resignation, the missile attack on Riyadh, the bombing of a Bahraini oil pipeline earlier this week, and the ongoing crises in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In Manama Shoukri spoke about the latest developments, including the attack on a Bahraini oil pipeline, with Bahrain’s King Hamed, briefing him on Egypt’s views of the way in which the deteriorating situation could impact on the stability of Arab states.

On Qatar Shoukri underlined that Egypt and other Gulf countries boycotting Doha must stick to their position until their list of 13 demands is met and diplomatic relations can resume.

In Jordan, the first stop of his tour, Shoukri met with King Abdullah II. They discussed the situation in Gaza, Egyptian efforts to foster reconciliation between Palestinian factions and ways to revive the peace process.  

Shoukri also used the opportunity to warn against destabilising interference by foreign parties in internal Arab affairs.

In a week that witnessed a host of negative developments it was the sudden resignation of Al-Hariri that sent the biggest shockwaves across the region.

The fact that he resigned while in Saudi Arabia has led to feverish speculation. In a televised interview from Riyadh on Sunday Al-Hariri said he could move freely in Saudi Arabia and will return to Lebanon “very soon”.

“I am free here. If I want to travel tomorrow, I will… I will return to Lebanon very soon,” he said, brushing aside rumours that he was under de facto house arrest in the kingdom.

Al-Hariri also denied speculation his resignation speech had been dictated to him. “I wrote [my resignation] with my own hand. I wanted to create a positive shock, not a negative one,” he said.

Al-Hariri has spent the last week in meetings with diplomats and Saudi officials in Riyadh as well as making a brief trip to Abu Dhabi.

Iran has been accused of involvement in this week’s attack on the Bahraini oil pipeline and the missile attack on Riyadh from Yemen, allegations Tehran denies.

In reaction to the missile attack the Saudi-led military coalition fighting against the Houthi movement in Yemen closed all air, land and sea ports to Yemen, potentially exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there.

On Tuesday, Riyadh’s ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said in New York that the Saudi-led coalition would reopen some of the country’s ports within hours.

“Does launching a missile provide sufficient reason to close all ports in Yemen, leaving the people prey to famine, cholera and more difficult life conditions?” asked Hassan.

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