Jeddah Summit: US-backed regional bloc against Iran passes under the radar

Photo copyright of AFP

Listening to BBC World Service radio (English language version) is increasingly bad for my health. Yesterday and today I struggled in vain to hear anything about the Jeddah Security & Development Summit (JSDS), which launched a bloc of nine Arab states with the USA, other than en passant references.

Feeling like you are in a parallel universe is arguably an affliction of modern life, given social media-related siloing of our news and identity reality. However the ‘JSDS’ was important, even if it was not totally ground breaking. I did hear a lot via the BBC’s overall radio and TV output over the weekend about the Biden-MbS fist bump, and even some reflection on what the formal US-KSA bilateral meeting produced in policy terms. Well, I heard a one-line reference to the Saudi agreement to the full opening of its airspace to Israeli civilian (over) flights. This Saudi concession to Israel was almost bizarrely stated by the BBC as a US ‘win’. To the average Joe Blow in the US, it wouldn’t mean diddly squit. Cutting the cost of gassing-up would.

The great bulk of BBC reporting on the US-KSA bilateral meeting, and the almost total absence (to my ears at least) of analysis of the content and output of the JSDS, reflected the BBC’s focus on an American president doing what he said he would not do when he was in the middle of an election campaign: meet with the Saudi de facto leader, MbS.

Why? Well the BBC obviously concluded that the real meat of the US President’s two days in KSA was simply him being there. The BBC’s remit to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ (note the official order) led it to focus almost entirely on Biden’s abandonment of outrage at the Saudi state’s murder of one of its nationals.

I knew Jamal Khashoggi and regarded him as a friend. In his capacity, first, as media advisor to a senior Saudi prince, and then as the manager of a media company owned by another senior Saudi prince, Jamal was very helpful to me. I therefore do not say the following lightly. Jamal’s murder was by minions incapable of acting without the direct and express authority of their political master. However this long-established reality was not, by a long chalk, the most significant aspect of Biden’s weekend sojourn to Saudi Arabia. For their own reasons BBC reporters and their editors judged it differently. After all, Saudi Arabia is an established BBC bête noire, and Jamal was, almost, one of their own.

In truth Jamal was murdered by the Saudi state because of what he represented politically. This one- time Saudi political player – at least as far as any foreign journalist/writer on Saudi Arabia was concerned –  had turned. Jamal had never been shy about suggesting political reform was needed in Saudi, and had been allowed to use semi-official platforms and his various media positions to gently push that particular envelope. However under MbS’ rule Jamal judged it was safer to advocate such arguments from outside of the Saudi tent. Having upped the strength of his critique, the rest, as they say, is history. And that, I am sorry to say, is probably what it will remain.

Meanwhile, back in Jeddah, major events have been happening. The US-KSA bilateral on Friday, and the JSDS yesterday, were not the US announcing it was ‘back’ in the Middle East, even if Biden seemed to rhetorically imply as much in his address at the 10-state gathering. The JSDS also featured the six Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms, gathered under their Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) flag of convenience; Egypt; Jordan; and, a little oddly, Iraq.

The Biden White House, in cahoots with Saudi Arabia, planned yesterday’s meeting of what had been widely dubbed in Arab media a would-be ‘Arab NATO’, with Israel, against their bête noire: Iran. Israel wasn’t actually invited. Not yet at least. It didn’t need to be anyway. Cynics would argue that it had its cheerleader in chief to represent it anyway. That’s the US President by the way, not the UAE. Biden had just come hot foot from Israel. In Jerusalem, Biden’s expressions of US fealty to Israel were so extreme that they communicated political weakness, as opposed to supposedly hugging close a country where US fealty is assumed, not earned, and all too easily compromised by its friendship with Russia and China.

The JSDS did not produce a formal 10-state defence alliance against Iran. This was never on the cards. However this ‘GCC+3+1’ meeting took place at a time when the US has recently been firming up its extant bilateral defence and security commitment to each of the six Gulf states, reinforcing its political and security embrace of the Egyptian counter-coup under Sisi, reasserting its commitment to offsetting Iranian strategic claims in Iraq, and doing very little in substance to reinforce Hashemite rule in Jordan.

Biden had arrived in Jeddah forearmed with a Congressional bill advocating a US-led regional alliance against Iran. In recent weeks the US has also reinvigorated extant US-led regional missile defence shield ambitions, and, acting in line with their own ‘Normalisation’ deal, Israel and the UAE have reportedly begun installing in their own countries the radar detection props of that planned defence shield. The JSDS though put a kind of rhetorical icing on the cake. Its 10-state closing declaration included shared acknowledgement of Washington’s commitment to the security and defence of ‘US partners’, while the US-KSA bilateral the day before had included reference to the US’ ‘strategic commitment’ to Saudi. None of this is exactly new.

The US has long had explicit and formal agreements to militarily defend five of the six Gulf states (as have the UK and France). However, that Saudi Arabia is once again being emphasised as receiving a US defence commitment, is a shift from the mutual doubt in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings and from the ad-hoc stance of President Trump. That said, the US’ entrenched position in the almost literal infrastructure of Saudi defence and security has been firm, if periodically reconfigured, since 1991. In Jeddah the US and Saudi bilaterally agreed that Saudi naval capabilities (such as they are) will be formally integrated in US-led regional security architecture. The latter, led by US CENTCOM in Bahrain, home of the US’ 5th Fleet, already incorporates Israel in the US’s Greater Arabian military outreach.

Oftentimes western and Arab media preoccupation with what aides of Gulf leaders spin as their boss’s doubts about the US’ commitment, is just a bid for even more advanced US kit, the strategic symbolism of more US men on the ground in uniform (if discreetly in Saudi), and a desire to get the US to more effectively contain Iran on their behalf. In a sense that Gulf spin got its desired result in the launch of the GCC+3+1 in Jeddah.

It will now be a regular event, presumably touring each of its regional members’ capitals. Holding it in Baghdad is possible. However, unless Iraq is able to be fully incorporated into the US-backed missile shield against Iran currently being set up, including the intel-sharing component, then Iraq will be more a nominal pact member than a substantive part. The JSDS’ final communique did not mention Iran explicitly. However it made plenty of references to things that unite all 10 states in their concern about the Islamic Republic, including a helpful, for Saudi especially, reference to the Riyadh-orchestrated Yemeni political leadership seeking to set up shop in Aden, an assertion of Lebanese sovereignty that includes a shared commitment to its (US/French-assisted, Qatari-funded) state armed forces, and a strong commitment to Libya and ending the role there of ‘mercenaries’ (code for Russian, Syrian and Turkish-organised ‘volunteers’).

The long-dead ‘two state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was given a higher billing in the JSDS communique though. This was partly cover for MbS, given the defunct Saudi-authored ‘Arab Peace Plan’, and partly to mollify Jordan, the perennial victim. Jordan’s internationally sanctified ‘protection’ of Jerusalem’s holy places, mentioned in the Communique, gives its ruling family meaning even if it has little power to effect what actually happens in the Holy City.

Just prior to the JSDS, King Abdullah said publicly that he wasn’t opposed in principle to the mooted ‘Arab alliance’ but that any military focus would have to be explicitly stated. Jordan has separately indicated that it cannot countenance that public focus being Iran, even though (or precisely because) Jordan fears an Iran that effectively sits to its immediate north and east. Nobody actually expects the ‘two state’ reference to lead to anything, least of all Biden who told Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas, whom he visited in his isolated Ramallah redoubt, that now wasn’t the time for the US to actually do something about it. Ironically or not, the PA is also a de facto part of this so-called ‘moderate’ Arab state alignment with Israel against Iran. The PA’s funders and ostensible political backers are opposed to, or are at least fearful of, Iran. That doesn’t mean that the nine Arab state members of the GCC+3+1 would ever agree to the mutually obligating defence commitment of a NATO-type alliance against Iran, whether underpinned by the US, and sotto voce including Israel, or not. As the Saudi foreign minister observed at his JSDS press conference, there is no ‘Arab NATO’ being planned. There is though, he said, the ongoing work of building an intra-Arab security structure. That work has been ongoing for 70 years, albeit with some periodic nominal reinventions and tweaks. It remains as meaningless as ever.  

Jeddah’s two key meetings did not directly help Biden’s prospects in the Congressional mid-terms, although the JSDS communique arguably suggested some further potential oil production increases might be wrought from the compromised and cynical ‘OPEC+’ (including Russia) structure that the communique actually praises. Whether this will bring the oil price down substantively or not, is another matter. Media, including but not only the BBC, often assume that this supposed sole reason for Biden being in town will, if granted, lead to the desired outcome. The complexities of a fungible oil market, OPEC+ politics, Libya’s volatile output, and limited global refining capacity amidst cautious investment, are, as ever, best left aside.

That said, Biden may well eventually get the further output cuts he definitely wants. He has also helped create a new public forum for a wide range of US regional friends even if they cannot, yet, all sit in the same room. Iraq is ostensibly bound by a recent legislative reinforcement of its traditional no engagement stance with Israel. Oman, at one-time enjoying diplomatic relations with Israel, has of late been spouting more strongly Arabist, even on occasion anti-Semitic, vitriol against Israel in the semi-official Omani press as the Sultanate positions itself against distrusted Gulf neighbours. Qatar is friendly with Iran and Hamas, making it a useful Israeli conduit to Gazan leaders but not, as yet, a likely Normaliser. Kuwait still revels in its rejectionist-in-chief posturing; its semi-official media extend this to a reinforced refusal to even print the name of the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia is happy to semi-clandestinely engage with Israel in the areas that matter: security and intelligence – its bilateral meeting in Jeddah with the USA included reference to cyber cooperation that inevitably extends to Israel. Of course the expected regional missile defence shield would of necessity connect all the Gulf states, as well as Egypt and Jordan, with Israel. That means Kuwait, if its often awkward but sometimes slow parliament get round to grasping it, and Iran-friendly Qatar will be sharing Iranian missile intelligence with Israel. Probably all a manageable circle that can eventually be squared.

Israel enjoys the symbols of Arab state Normalisation. Hence the normalising of Israeli civilian airline overflight, poo-pooed as largely international business convenience by the Saudi foreign minister, is excitedly trumpeted by the new Israeli PM as part of Israel’s burgeoning relationship with Saudi Arabia. Israel though doesn’t need the GCC+3+1 to become a formal military alliance, with itself as an official honorary member. For his part, MbS doesn’t need the headache of Israelis getting close to the Haramain (the statelet of Neom will have its own rules). Israel continues to deepen its bilateral security relations with official Normalisers and with the key semi-official Normaliser (KSA).

The US is underscoring its defence of Arab allies, something that it had recently reinforced in the KSA and UAE when missile strikes by Yemen’s Ansarallah were significant. In other words, Washington is not so much ’back’ as politically more focused on the Arabian Peninsula. This reflects an increased desire to weaken a Russia that had advanced in Syria and Libya, and whose war on Ukraine has helped drive up energy prices. This is the substance of Biden’s Jeddah weekend, and the regional military and political components of it are the real story.     





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