Their voices were calm and measured, but as Gulf leaders addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, frustration was palpable.
The Middle East today is in flames, and from Syria to Iraq to Yemen and Palestine, the international body meant to resolve global crises is split and deadlocked. Great powers bicker, and the region is left with the unimaginable human consequences.
That was the message delegates from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar brought to the United Nations General Assembly’s 71st session in New York (UNGA)—one filled with a mix of exasperation, anger, and even a bit of ‘we told you so.’
Rather than curing the roots of conflicts over the last half-decade, the U.N. Security Council has treated only the gravest symptoms, they argued. It was a selfish strategy aimed at triaging damage while limiting Western military and financial investments. But it backfired: the problems have only grown more complex and intractable.
“The reality is that prominent powers in these crises, whether regional or international sides, have settled for managing the crises that have struck our region without overcoming them,” UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan told the Assembly. “As a result, the dangers have been exacerbated and complexified [sic], rendering these crises difficult to solve without doubled efforts and tremendous financial and human cost.”
In the absence of international consensus, the Gulf is trying—now more than ever—to do its own bit for regional security. Leaders came to the United Nations with unusually stride remarks and rebukes. They reminded allies of the ways they are fighting terrorism, investing in weak regional states, funding refugee relief, and supporting diplomacy.
But Gulf leaders know they cannot rewrite big power politics, and so they too are forced to try to alleviate the worst symptoms of crises. For now, that means a firm focus on the Gulf itself. Concerns about economic development and reform, internal security and terrorist threats, and a grinding war in Yemen have tied up capacity.
“The Gulf is in a leadership mindset in terms of managing their own regional security and leading the push-back against Iran. This tracks through to the U.N. and gives them more of a purpose and animus to play a leading role,” David Roberts, lecturer at Kings College London and an expert on the Gulf states, tells Newsweek Middle East. “Still, while there’s a feeling of ‘it’s our turn to step up,’ the mechanics of how they do it are circumscribed and limited by capacity.”
The Syrian Black Hole
Nowhere is Gulf frustration more evident than on the Syrian crisis. Hours before delegations began addressing the UNGA, a U.S.-Russia-brokered ceasefire shattered as an aid convoy into the besieged city of Aleppo was bombed.
It was the latest string in what many regional leaders see as ill-conceived attempts to put band aids on Syria’s carnage. Do that, Gulf leaders have long argued, and you’ll simply leave the wound to fester, infecting more and more of the region as time wears on.
Indeed, that’s exactly what has happened over the last five years, the Qatari delegation argued, using the most strident language of any Gulf state.
“We had warned from this forum that inaction in addressing the crisis would increase their intensity,” said Qatar’s Ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. “Here we meet again more than five years after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the majority of Syrian cities by the regime. As a result, the numbers of refugees have doubled…Syria now is importing terrorist and sectarian organizations and militias, which pose a regional and international threat.”
What should have been done instead? Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies would have preferred strong international support to the moderate opposition long ago. Now five years into the conflict, positions have relaxed slightly.
Diplomacy is now the first choice to resolve the conflict. As UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah put it, “The UAE sees no possibility of resolving the Syrian crisis through military force.”
Gulf countries have also softened their negotiating stances. Saudi Arabia, for example, still insists that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has no future in Syria, but Riyadh is a bit more flexible on the timeline, says Mustafa Alani, head of the Gulf Research Center. They may be open to his participation in some transitional process.
Other conditions remain steadfast. “Iranian physical military presence in Syria is a red line, something the Saudis will not tolerate,” Alani tells Newsweek Middle East. “[Daesh] is absolutely a red line. [Daesh] is now attacking Saudi once a month, basically replacing Al Qaeda as the major threat to Saudi’s internal security.”
What’s not an option for Gulf leaders is the status quo. Half-attempts and fitful ceasefires have perversely given the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies a green light, several delegations argued.
The Qataris, again speaking most bluntly, took a dig at the U.S. in particular for its failure to heed a ‘red line’ drawn by President Barack Obama over Assad’s chemical weapons use.
“Red lines were set for the regime who [sic] has violated them, yet those who demarcated those lines have not felt provoked to raise a finger,” Sheikh Tamim said. “The red line continued to be shifted until the regime became aware of the fact that there is no ceiling for what it could perpetrate without accountability.”
While Syria dominates headlines, other regional crises are capturing the bulk of Gulf attention. Saudi Arabia’s Yemen operation and Iran’s regional influence were on the top of leaders’ agenda at UNGA.
“You have to understand that the importance of Syria has been reduced on the priority list since [the conflict in] Yemen” began, said Alani.
Yemen encapsulates all of the broader strategic challenges Gulf leaders see themselves up against today: rising Iranian influence, diminishing U.S. support, and growing terrorist threats.
The Saudi-led coalition effort—to oust Houthi rebels and restore the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi—was an assertion of regional leadership at a time when the Gulf has seen its traditional security guarantor against Iran, the U.S., and a step back.
The Saudi military is now embroiled in Yemen in a way it rarely has been anywhere before. Daily airstrikes pummel rebel positions, as political negotiations move fitfully forward. The coalition has come under fire at the U.N. for civilian casualties from its air attacks, a point which wasn’t addressed by the delegation.
“My country has spared no effort to support Yemen in all feasible ways,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud told the General Assembly.
The crown prince pointed to the $470 million in humanitarian assistance his country has deployed to Yemen since 2015, which “has reached all parts of Yemen, including areas under the control of Al Houthi.”
Iran, meanwhile, is the common thread that Gulf leaders see throughout the Middle East’s crises. Despite hopes, the P5+1 nuclear agreement has failed to moderate Tehran’s foreign policy, the UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah said.
Instead, the country has escalated its long-used strategy of incitement, Gulf leaders told the U.N. From active military operations in Syria, to indirect support to Houthi rebels in Yemen, to funding for sectarian militias in Iraq, Tehran seeks to break Arab societies from within, they argued.
“Iran, with its expansionist regional policies, flagrant violations of the principles of sovereignty, and constant interference in the internal affairs of its neighboring countries, has played the greatest role in causing tensions and instability in the region,” said Sheikh Abdullah.
Gulf States believe fighting terrorism in such a context is a non-starter; Iranian provocations give resonance to extremist views. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef told the U.N., “Iran is escalating the dissemination sectarian speech which is a grave concern in our Arab and Islamic world; as the outcomes of these speeches are deepening the conflicts and provoking sectarian extremism.”
Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said his country and its Arab counterparts have “spared no effort to build with this neighboring country the best possible relations on the basis of good neighborliness and respect.” However, according to him, Iran continued to produce “the same irresponsible sectarian discourse.”
Gulf leaders would like to see U.N. action on Iran. Alani pointed to Yemen, where Houthi rebels have recently found themselves in the possession of Iranian ballistic missiles, according to Riyadh. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for sanctions against anyone who undermines Yemeni security, “is a good resolution,” Alani said. “But what is missing is the implementation mechanism; there is no punishment for the party that is going to violate the resolution.”
Kuwait and Qatar, which have traditionally had cool but calmer ties with Iran, were less blunt. Kuwaiti Prime Minister Jaber Mubarak Al Hamad Al Sabah reminded Tehran of the “importance of creating the appropriate conditions for any constructive dialogue to take place.” Meanwhile, the Qatari delegation failed to mention Iran at all.
“At least rhetorically, it’s Doha trying to play that classic Qatari role” of regional mediator, said Roberts. “The fundamental issue for Qatar is that they are tied to Iran through the gas field, and they can’t afford to be too bellicose. They always want to be there to offer an ‘out’ for Iran––so they can say, remember we were trying to de-escalate.”
As turmoil engulfed the Middle East over the last half-decade, the Palestinian question took a backseat in diplomacy. Gulf leaders went out of their way to remind UNGA that the conflict cannot be forgotten.
“It would be difficult to see normal relations between the states and peoples of the region in a way that would boost mutual confidence and coexistence,” without a just solution to the Palestinian issue, said Oman’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yousuf bin Alawi.
As ever, Gulf leaders see the Palestinian question as a root cause of much of the political turmoil and extremism boiling in the region today.
Middle East peace may also be the arena where the Gulf can best wield influence. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Nayef reaffirmed support for the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers full recognition of Israel in exchange for a two-state solution along the 1967 borders.
“Whenever there is an opportunity, they want to remind people that, still, the Palestinian issue is the mother of all trouble in the region,” said Alani. “And there is a good solution on the table.”