Jul 7, 1999 | 05:00 GMT

6 mins read

Saudi Arabia Attempts to Balance Relations with GCC and Iran


Saudi Arabia and the UAE have apparently reconciled the dispute that threatened to split the GCC. Abu Dhabi claimed that Riyadh was sacrificing its interests in the pursuit of rapprochement with Tehran. The accusation provoked a scathing rebuke of the UAE from Saudi Prince Sultan, while U.S. Undersecretary of State Martin Indyk sided with the UAE. This lineup raises questions about Washington's true position on and involvement in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.


In a special one day session on July 3, the foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates - wrapped up a meeting left hanging three weeks earlier when a dispute erupted between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The 71st ministerial meeting of the GCC broke down on June 12, with the UAE blasting the rest of the GCC - particularly Saudi Arabia - for abandoning it in its dispute with Iran over three strategic islands in the Gulf. Mediation by Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani helped patch up relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and paved the way for the new GCC initiative. The deal agreed to on July 3 calls for the establishment of a three country committee comprised of representatives of Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the GCC secretary, who will arrange for direct talks between the UAE and Iran. The committee is to hold its first meeting in a week and present its recommendations to GCC heads of state by May of next year. Iran has rejected the committee, calling instead for unmediated bilateral talks with the UAE.

Though the GCC rift has been temporarily mended, the events surrounding its emergence raise interesting questions about the course of Saudi rapprochement with Iran. The UAE has been uncomfortable with the steady improvement in relations between Riyadh and Tehran, as Abu Dhabi has long argued that any GCC opening to Iran be predicated on a resolution of its dispute with Iran over the islands of Abu Musa, and Greater and Lesser Tunb. The islands have been occupied by Iran since 1971. When the UAE failed to win unequivocal support for its position at the June ministerial meeting, a war of words quickly erupted between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, with the UAE going so far as to threaten to suspend its membership in the GCC.

When UAE Foreign Minister Rashid Abdullah al-Nuaimi went on independent Qatari television on June 5 to denounce Riyadh's behavior, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz called a press conference to lash back. Prince Sultan said it was strange to refer to rapprochement as "being at others' expense," and noted that the UAE had been a model for relations with Tehran, carrying out almost half its trade with Iran despite the territorial dispute. More precisely, Prince Sultan called the UAE essentially "fifty percent Iranian." He went on to say, "We are not going to embark on childish quarrels," and insisted that Saudi Arabia "is far above these questions."

More surprising than the fact that Riyadh would slap around Abu Dhabi in favor of improving relations with Iran is the person who delivered that slap - Prince Sultan. Sultan - by some accounts second in line for the throne behind Prince Abdullah - and his son Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have previously been considered Washington's most reliable doors into the Saudi royal family. Prince Sultan was even blamed for instigating insults in a Saudi mosque against visiting Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, presumably in an effort to torpedo the then nascent rapprochement. Yet Prince Sultan was far more confrontational in dealing with the UAE than was Prince Abdullah, who has been at the forefront of improving relations with Iran.

One possibility is that Prince Sultan's rebuke of the UAE was indicative of a major shift in U.S. policy - actively favoring the process of Iranian-Saudi reconciliation. However, U.S. Undersecretary of State Martin Indyk travelled to the Gulf to personally reassure the UAE of Washington's support for its island claims. Moreover, at a June 22 meeting in Abu Dhabi of GCC Deputy Foreign Ministers, Indyk warned of the continued threat posed by Iran to the Gulf states and reiterated Washington's offer of military assistance - including a theater missile defense system - to counter the Iranian threat. Still, the U.S. could be playing a little good-cop bad-cop, supporting the rapprochement but keeping the UAE in the wings as a check, lest the friendship progress too far, too fast. In that case, Prince Sultan's statements could have had the double mission of showing U.S. support for the Saudi initiative, while intentionally instigating a hostile response from the UAE.

There is, however, another option. A struggle is currently underway for succession to the Saudi throne, and Prince Sultan may have come out more aggressive than Prince Abdullah to bolster his bid for the throne. By being more pro-Iranian, or at least more anti-UAE, Sultan may have been hoping to demonstrate his independence from Washington. Whatever his motivation, Prince Sultan has apparently been chastised for his aggressiveness and dispatched on a tour of four Gulf states - including the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait - to consolidate bilateral ties and consult on a variety of issues. Meanwhile, in a keynote speech at the opening of the Shura advisory council on July 5, Saudi King Fahd reiterated Riyadh's position that improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations is in the benefit of both sides, the entire region, and the Arab and Islamic community.

Whether or not the U.S. is on board, Saudi Arabia appears back on course toward reconciliation with Iran. It has blunted the UAE's opposition, in the very least postponing the issue until next May. And one way or the other, the pro-American faction of the royal family appears to support the rapprochement. With so much that should be standing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, their rapidly improving relations can only raise the question, who is guaranteeing the stability and security of this unlikely match?

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