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Raghida Dergham

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The Kuwait Summit Avoids Confrontation But the Embrace of Frankness Awaits

Posted: 12/13/2013 3:03 pm

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Kuwait succeeded in containing the breakup of the string that holds it together by avoiding a confrontation that loomed in the wake of the frank Saudi-Omani disagreements on the eve of the summit. The final communique made clear that all six GCC countries adhere to, at least for now, sustaining and developing the GCC. Saudi Arabia did not insist on in-depth discussions of the future of the «Union» it seeks amongst the six countries -- political, economic and military -- a union utterly rejected by Oman. Nor did Oman oppose the mention of the «Union» in the final communique as an aspiration and a target for the GCC.

Oman even agreed to strengthening and advancing the military cooperation among the six countries beyond the «Peninsula Shield» although it had opposed any enhancement of security arrangements two days before the summit. The Islamic Republic of Iran was the «Elephant in the Room» that all principles in the summit pretended it was not in the room. The gorilla that weighs tons -- the United States -- crossed Kuwait summit as lightly as a butterfly. On one hand, leaders of the six nations did well in highlighting what brings them together and in taking time to think thoroughly about what should be done as their Iranian neighbor and American ally newly engage in a «tango» that raises serious concern of some countries in the GCC. But the GCC summit did not live up to the need for a vision, or even a message, that addresses the Iranian event be it the nuclear negotiations or the qualitative breakthrough in American- Iranian relations or Iran's regional roles particularly in Syria.

Even the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba, did not benefit from the momentum given to him in a rare opportunity - a platform at the Kuwaiti Summit to address the GCC leaders. His speech was average when it should have been exceptional. So what now for the GCC countries in an eventful and an unusual transitional year? First- to build on the frankness that preceded the summit but was absent from it- the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Oman is neither just a slip of the tongue nor is it merely about the form of security and military cooperation among the six Arab countries of the Gulf. It's about a real and genuine difference between the two countries over the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional roles.

What Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said to Al Hayat at the «Manama Dialogue» about Oman's willingness to «withdraw» from the assembly of the six countries if Saudi Arabia insisted on establishing the «Union» is not a position driven emotionally. It is the position of the Sultanate of Oman. When he said «If there are any other or new arrangements by the Gulf states as a result of the conflicts existing now or in the future, we are not a party to it, and we do not want to be party to it, and will not be part of it», he certainly was not expressing a personal view. This is the position of the Sultanate of Oman who decided to «disassociate» itself from such arrangements. It's clear that it was the intention of the Sultanate of Oman to clarify their positions two days before the summit- perhaps not with the outcry that accompanied the words of Omani Minister in the «Manama Dialogue». Perhaps what was said by the Minister of State in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nizar Madani, which is that countries of the GCC should not adhere to local sovereignty, is exactly what raised the ire of bin Alawi. But the very idea of a Union necessarily requires some erosion of local sovereignty of the States belonging to any union modeled on the European Union. Oman's own highlighting of its "utter" opposition to the establishment of a Union of the Arab Gulf States coincided with Tehran's revival of its traditional position that calls for the dismantling of the GCC and replace it with a Security Structure that includes Iran, Iraq and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Broad Smile Diplomacy- in the era of the new president of Iran Hassan Rohani- did not change course regarding the dismantling of the GCC. This was abundantly promoted by the man of continuous broad smiles himself, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, during his recent Gulf tour when he spoke of the need to establish an alternative system to the GCC. A senior member of the Omani delegation at the Kuwait summit objected to Al Hayat's headline for a news story by the author of this article from Manama "GCC fears Iranian-Omani efforts to dismantle it» calling it an "agitator of trouble and a strife." There is no such agitation of either making trouble or driving a strife in the matter. Anxiety exists. The policies of Iran and Oman converge in rejecting developing the GCC into a Union modeled on the European Union among the six members of the Cooperation Council of the Gulf Arab States.

Concern exists indeed about the repercussions of an enhancement of the intimate relationship between Iran and Oman because the two countries overlook the strategic Strait of Hormuz that is vital for the GCC countries' economic security and military security. Anxiety is a state of being; it does not make policy. There is a dire necessity to formulate a rational and sober policy that ensures that the Sultanate of Oman remains an essential cornerstone in any bloc of Arab Gulf States. The burden does not fall exclusively on the shoulders of Muscat. In fact, the major responsibility lies on the shoulders of the other Arab Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia. It is not permissible to allow the loss of Oman in any system that encompasses the Arab States of the Gulf. This requires frankness of a new kind and a clear insistence that Oman stays indispensible to any system or bloc of the Gulf Arab States.

Saudi diplomacy is certainly aware that there are differences with its policies not only by Oman, but also by other countries in the GCC, including the UAE and Qatar, for varied several reasons, not only with regard to the Union. Because of its paramount importance for Gulf and other Arab states, the Saudi diplomacy needs to build its strategies to reduce differences with a long-term vision that circumvents any separation or dismantlement. Arab Gulf nationals are eager for building up their Gulf blocs- not for disintegration or separation.

As to Omani diplomacy, it sure needs to be more in contact with the general Arab sense and feelings, not only of the Gulf, in particular towards Syria and Iran's role in it. It is truly amazing that a member of the Omani delegation to the Kuwait summit says bluntly (though not for attribution) that Iran's military intervention in Syria is a justified intervention because it in Iran's interest. It is shocking that he justifies Iran's influence in Iraq by blaming it on the Arabs who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is alarming that this senior official says that Hezbollah's fighting in Syria is in «self-defense». It is mind boggling to turn a blind eye on more than 140 thousand people dead in Syria and say that Hezbollah is acting in "self defense" because its own interests require its support of the regime in Damascus. No matter how far does this political realism goes, Syria is an Arab country paying a price for interests and Oman Arab country that should feel some of the Syrian's pain.

In the same token, no matter what frustration brews due to victories scored by the regime in Damascus- due to substantial support from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias- it is not permissible for any Gulf country to adopt a policy to encourage or finance any terrorist groups to respond to fire with fire. Ahmad Jarba told the GCC summit that the Syrian regime is taking extremists out of prison in a strategy to unleash them in order to smear the reputation of the Syrian Opposition- An Opposition already believed by some Western countries to has been confiscated or infiltrated by Al-Qaeda and its likes. Be it by infiltration of the Syrian Opposition or by designs of the Damascus regime, the Neo-Jihadists are a curse for Syrians. Anyone who supports the Afghanization of Syria is committing a terrible crime; the curse will get back at them to haunt them. Those volunteers coming to Syria from Europe, Russia and beyond in Asia and America are coming to fight their own ideological wars at the expense of Syrian blood. They will yet again turn against those who enable them just like they did after the Afghan war was over.

Those who are being released from Syrian prisons will do the same, but for now their harm is immense. Their negative impact on the moderate Syrian opposition is evident everywhere; a development and a strategy that does not look at all innocent. Their actions have led to undermine American support for the armed opposition represented by The Free Syrian Army.

It has become abundantly clear that their immediate tactics aim to provide a reason or a pretext for withholding all offensive weapons and anti-aircraft missiles from the Syrian opposition - weapons the Opposition needs immediately if it were to alter the military balance of power on the ground. The Administration in Washington seems ready to walk in the footsteps set for it at the hands of the regime in Damascus and at the hands of terrorist groups. This poses the most important challenges, in particular for Saudi Arabia who openly and repeatedly declared its support of the Syrian opposition.

By sending a private jet to return Jarba to Kuwait after he had left it a day earlier, Saudi Arabia was sending a strong message from the Kuwait summit that the Syrian matter is central to Riyadh. Other GCC countries do not have identical positions towards the Syrian issue; some distance and disassociate themselves like Oman; some soften their enthusiasm like Qatar; some channel their role in humanitarian aid, such as Kuwait; and some persevere in their position, such as the United Arab Emirates. The question avoided by the GCC leaders is whether they see a need for a qualitatively new conversation between them and Tehran- individually and collectively- in the aftermath of the Iranian openness to the West. Some of them insist on distrusting Iran's intentions and sticking to the position that the Syrian arena is crucial and detrimental to the relationship of Iran with Gulf Arab states. Those of this view see that an Iranian victory in Syria should be a red line, and therefore, they are against any retreat from a proxy war with Iran in the Syrian and the Lebanese arena as well, if needed.

GCC countries do not seem ready to utilize the effective tools needed whether to impact the battlefield or to influence Iranian and American positions. Fish or cut bait. Either use all your available tools, or find another strategy for the balance of power on the battlefield in Syria. Further use of Syrians and Lebanese in proxy wars of others will lead to an uproar of anger against all those engaged in this war, without exception. This is how curse and revenge could get entangled to take matters down to the very bottom. Some GCC foreign ministers, speaking ahead of the Kuwait Summit, called for a 5+2 formula instead of the 5+1, so that the GCC joins the table of international talks with Iran. Western countries had insisted on restricting the 5+1 talks to the nuclear issue. Iran is working on expanding the talks to deal so that there would be recognition of its regional role and its place internationally.

It is good that leaders at the Kuwait summit avoided in their final communique asking for a GCC seat at the table of the 5+1 negotiations. This way they avoided a publicly humiliating turn down of their request by the five countries (United States, Russia, China, Britain and France), plus Germany on the basis that this sensitive formula must be confined exclusively to nuclear negotiations. But it is very important that the GCC launches now a collective and firm diplomacy with the major powers insisting on a place at the table of negotiations that Iran wants to expand beyond the nuclear negotiations.

Western justifications in refusing to discuss other than the nuclear issue were based on fear of Iranian intention to dilute the nuclear issue and to evade placing its nuclear facilities under serious accountability as required by the Non Proliferation Treaty, NPT. Now, things are different. Iran is now a party to the nuclear negotiations with the 5+1. Western countries' fears and pretexts for ducking do not exist any longer. In fact it is very much in the interest of the Western countries- who do not want to appear like offering Syria as a reward to Iran- to consider meeting Tehran's request to expand the scope of talks and insist on a seat for the GCC at the table.

The need for Gulf-Gulf frankness among the six Arab countries is more necessary than ever, as is the need to rub minds together and brain-storm «outside the box» to come up with new ideas and long-term strategies that rise to the opportunities and meet the challenges. The Saudi-Omani frankness was necessary, and even beneficial, because it released the important differences from the prison of secrecy. The Kuwait summit contained the confrontation. Kuwait's presidency of the GCC should embrace ongoing openness and constructive frankness. In doing so, it can help the region draw pragmatic, realistic and visionary strategies that shake the traditional equations. Introducing the precedent of the Kuwaiti Parliament Speaker addressing a GCC summit ushered in a bold and beautiful precedent. But the absence of not even one woman delegate from the circle of official delegations of the six GCC countries is an unfortunate defect that needs to be corrected seriously.

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