Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in the April 25 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
As Gulf Arab states lose faith in the United States’ commitment to their security, two Middle East archrivals are taking matters into their own hands.
On Monday, Iran revealed that it held a fifth round of talks with Saudi Arabia late last week. The negotiations between the two regional heavyweights were “progressive and positive,” according to an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman. Saudi Arabia is yet to comment on them.
The ministry spokesman said talks were underway on sending 40,000 Iranian pilgrims to the Hajj in the Saudi city of Mecca this year.
While talks to date have focused on relatively small issues like pilgrimage to holy sites and have been attended by officials at the intelligence level, the potential inclusion of foreign ministry-level officials in forthcoming talks could indicate significant progress and a desire to bring to a conclusion some of the region’s most intractable conflicts.
Frustrated with what they see as the US’ waning interest in their security concerns, Gulf Arab states have begun taking matters into their own hands of late, reaching out to rivals and enemies to fend off conflicts that can wreak havoc on their economies.
Oil facilities in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have come under attack in recent years by actors believed to be backed by Iran, including Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In both cases, the Gulf states were underwhelmed by the US response, prompting a rethink of a longstanding pillar of the US-Gulf relationship that ensured Arab consideration for US’ energy needs in return for American guarantees of security.
The US has reiterated its commitment to Gulf security by bolstering regional defenses against missile attacks. President Biden on Friday picked career diplomat Michael Ratney as the next US ambassador to Riyadh. If confirmed, he would be the first career diplomat to hold the post in the country in three decades.
The clearest manifestation of this rethink was the Gulf states’ muted reaction to the war in Ukraine. The US allies haven’t wholeheartedly come out in support of the Biden administration’s position on Russia’s war there, and regional officials have pointed to the conflict as a sign of a changing world order where the West may have less say than it once did..
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and the UAE have rebuffed US calls to increase oil production to lower the price of crude that is fueling Russia’s war, opting instead to stick to an alliance with fellow exporter Russia to ramp up production gradually. More than 15 months into his presidency, Joe Biden and the de facto Saudi ruler crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are yet to speak to each other.
Meanwhile, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been mending fences in the region.
Over the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia has de-escalated its war in Yemen through a rare truce and begun a rapprochement with Lebanon after an unprecedented rupture of ties last year. Both countries are arenas for proxy conflicts between Riyadh and Tehran.
The biggest obstacle to warming ties from an Iranian perspective was the war in Yemen, said Mohammad Marandi, a professor at Tehran University. “Now that that is halted, at least for the time being, there is real hope for improvement,” he said, adding that Iran was only prepared to discuss matters of a bilateral nature and not “negotiate on behalf of” Yemen’s Houthi rebels
The resumption of talks also occurs as negotiations between world powers and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement reach an advanced stage. Gulf Arabs have been frustrated at the US for not addressing their concerns with Iran in the talks, believing their influence on Tehran pales in comparison to the leverage the US wields.
“The Gulf states believe that the US should be present at the table for Iran to deliver on any promises made to them,” said Elham Fakhro, associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank. But the Biden administration has insisted that those talks be held separately between Iran and the Gulf states, she added.
Direct talks with Iran are an attempt by Gulf Arab states to do just that, but analysts doubt their ability to achieve results that can satisfy both parties.
“These talks are almost doomed for failure,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. “At its core, the problem is not one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is between Iran and the US. Iran attacks the kingdom because it perceives it to be a client state of an American imperial order.”
But Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and Princeton University professor, said that both states have enough leverage over each other to warrant talks.
“The key issue for both is mutual assurance on no hegemonic regional agenda” and security guarantees, he said. Saudi Arabia has the US’ backing and “Iran has huge grassroots influence in the regional countries which can be a long-term threat for Saudis,” he said.
But it’s that US backing that has come into question of late. Disgruntlement with the US in the Gulf runs so deep that some see Washington’s role in the region as a spoiler rather than a guarantor of stability.
“Gulf states see America’s appeasement policy towards Iran over the past decade to be responsible for Iran ramping up its aggression,” said Alyahya, adding that the policy has started “fires that may spread to our house.”
“When a pyromaniac comes to your home, that is dangerous. What is more terrifying is when the pyromaniac comes dressed as a fireman,” he said, referring to US policy on Iran.
Other top Middle East news
President Biden to visit Israel in ‘coming months’
US President Joe Biden has accepted an invitation to visit Israel “in the coming months,” the office of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday, adding that Biden and Bennett spoke about “the Iranian issue” and Iran’s demand to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
- Background: Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers have recently been stalled over a number of key sticking points, one of which is Iran’s demand that its IRGC be removed from the FTO list. Bennett’s statement said that Biden “will not allow the IRGC to be removed from the list.”
- Why it matters: This visit to Israel will be the first for Biden as US president. He previously visited in 2010 and 2016 while serving as vice president. Tensions remain high in Jerusalem after repeated clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians on Al Aqsa compound over the last week and a half.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis offer release of 200 prisoners before Eid al-Fitr
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels offered the United Nations the release of 200 prisoners from each of the country’s warring parties ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, Al-Masirah TV said Sunday, citing head of the Houthi prison affairs committee Abdul Qader al-Murtada.
- Background: Earlier this month, Yemen’s warring sides agreed to a UN-brokered, nationwide truce for the first time in years, bringing hostilities between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi movement to a crucial halt. Days later, a political shakeup saw Yemen’s president cede power to a presidential council in a move backed by Saudi Arabia.
- Why it matters: Last month, a possible prisoner swap under the supervision of the UN, which could free hundreds of detainees, was discussed by warring parties. The swap would involve 1,400 Houthi prisoners in return for 823 coalition prisoners that include 16 Saudi nationals and a brother of the former Yemeni president. No final agreement has yet been reached.
Jordan, UAE, Egypt hold talks on Jerusalem
Jordan’s King Abdullah, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the violence in Jerusalem and the war in Ukraine, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported.
- Background: Tensions have been high in Jerusalem after Israeli police entered the Al Aqsa compound last week to counter what they described as riots by Palestinians. Jordan, which is the custodian of al-Aqsa mosque, previously called on Israel to “respect the historical legal status quo” and warned of an escalation. The UAE’s foreign ministry last week also summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest the treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem by Israeli forces.
- Why it matters: Egypt, which shares a border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, is concerned about recent unrest escalating to include Gaza as well. Last year, it brokered a truce between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas as they fought an 11-day war. The Arab League held an emergency meeting last week in the Jordanian capital Amman, where it called on Israel to end Jewish prayers inside the al-Aqsa compound and warned that violence might trigger wider conflict.
Around the region
The signs of wealth and prestige differ from country to country. Some flaunt their status with mansions, others with cars, but in the Gulf Arab states, license plates are all the rage.
On April 20, the Abu Dhabi license plate “2” fetched a whopping $6.3 million at an Abu Dhabi auction.
Firstly, a quick guide on license plates in the UAE: the fewer digits the plate contains, the more valuable it is; certain codes are more desirable than others, and plates from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates are the most expensive. A similar auction in Dubai a week earlier saw the plate “AA 8” fetch almost $9.5 million.
So when mansions and supercars don’t turn enough heads, people stick license plates on their cars purchased at multiple times the car’s own value. But in some cases, the exorbitant purchases may also fulfill a philanthropic purpose.
All of the proceedings from what is called the “Most Noble Numbers” auction in Abu Dhabi went towards the country’s One Billion Meals initiative. With the aim of providing food support in 50 countries around the world, the initiative is the biggest food distribution campaign in the region and has distributed over 420 million meals since the start of Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
By Mohammed Abdelbary