The past week brought an interesting observation to attention in Middle Eastern politics. Saudi Arabia called an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries after a drone attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels reportedly hit a crude oil pipeline in Saudi capital Riyadh. How did the Saudis sell this to the world and who bought it?
First, the summit was openly anti-Iran – Saudi Arabia’s mortal political foe and that because of Iran’s ethnic and religious background (unlike the Sunni Arab Saudis, Iran is predominantly a Shia Persian nation). So hosting the summit in Mecca – the religious capital of the Muslims the world over – instead of Riyadh, the official Saudi capital, set the stage for an essentially religious appeal to the Muslim leaders to side with the custodians of their holy sites. Madawi al-Rasheed was spot on to point this out on Middle East Eye.
For the non-Muslim world, Saudi Arabia chose to appeal to its status as a leading oil exporter, trying to scare them of disruption in oil supply if Iran was not stopped from backing the Houthis. As Al Arabiya reported, King Salman said that “Tehran’s actions threatened international maritime trade and global oil supplies.” The west, which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia relies heavily on for defense supplies, wouldn’t care about a threat to Sunni Islamic faith (or any faith for that) therefore the threat of cuts in oil supply and related price hike would have them worried.
Among the Islamic attendees, the feedback of two countries stood out – Turkey and Qatar. The souring relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in recent years precipitated mainly from Turkey’s refusal to heed the Saudi call of boycotting Qatar in 2017-instead, extending logistic support to Qatar amid the diplomatic blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its coalition of other Muslim countries, including UAE and Egypt. The brutal murder of exiled Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 escalated the suppressed conflict between Saudi and Turkish states as Turkey tried to play the United States against the Saudi Kingdom by tracing the murder to the Kingdom. The Turkish effort failed and the U.S. kept its business and diplomatic ties with the Saudis. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose not to attend the OIC summit but send the country’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who reportedly had a low-key (read disinterested) representation at the gathering.
Qatar, on the other hand, made the smart move of attending the summit despite being in an active two-year-long diplomatic row with the Saudi Kingdom. Smart because, unlike its Arab neighbors that ganged up with the Saudis to boycott Qatar, it chose to impart an air of tolerance and maturity in its foreign policy. On top of it, it was the perfect opportunity to slap the foe in its home on its own invitation. On returning from the summit, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani rejected Saudi Arabia’s hostile position toward Iran as expressed in the summit stating that King Salman was just reading the anti-Iran page from Washington without taking the “neighborhood” into consideration. The Saudis quickly lamented Qatar’s rejection of its position – the Emirs were likely waiting for it with a smirk. And with Iraq rejecting the anti-Iran rhetoric of the Saudis at the summit, the attempt to enlist key Islamic players in the region pretty much fell flat.
The international stakeholders proved no less disappointing to the Saudi expectations. To appease the Muslim representatives attending the summit, the Saudis brought up Palestine and slammed the decision of the Trump administration to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, by which the U.S. effectively recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The question that teases curiosity here is whether it was a cosmetic position assumed by the Saudis to baffle the Muslim states, or actually a serious assertion. If the Saudis meant it, their purpose of keeping international, mainly American support would be defeated spontaneously since recognizing Jerusalem is a landmark move of the U.S. and any opposition to it would mean incurring the wrath of the Trump administration. The big powers have seemingly not paid attention to the Saudi call.
On the whole, the Mecca OIC summit to move the world against Iran seems a weak attempt bound to fail by the mover’s own lack of competence to take effective diplomatic steps against its mortal political enemy. It was an attempt to convince the world to fight Iran because the kingdom itself cannot. But in making this sloppy attempt, the Saudis revealed to the world their sum of all fears – the vulnerability of their oil installations. And only a feeble mind in a battlefield would panic and reveal to its foes the vulnerable side. That is why they have the word “bluff” in dictionary.