A rapprochement between Iran and the US, however timid, was bound to trouble many in the already troubled Middle East.

When Iran agreed to curb some of its nuclear activities in return for $7bn in sanctions relief, its historical adversaries, including Israel, were incensed. Tehran may have agreed to stop all enrichment above 5% in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions but there are some who feel celebration of the deal might yet be premature.

The latest GCC summit, which normally brings together the six member states – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman – to self congratulate on the past years’ latest cosmetic achievements, was this time rounded up to address the pressing issue of the thawing of US relations with Iran. A summit initially designed to present a united front, in the end revealed cracks in a system that may have weathered the Arab Spring but is yet to recover from the Syrian conflict that continues to threaten the entire region.

Certain misgivings

Officially, Riyadh welcomed the Iran/US deal as a first step towards a solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions providing, as a Saudi statement noted: ‘there are good intentions.’ With the devil being in the detail, the Saudi statement revealed some misgivings. A number of seasoned observers have, it should be said, also given voice to similar misgivings.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu labelled the deal a ‘historic mistake.’ For the Israeli premier battling disappointing opinion polls, having the convenient bogeyman of Iran on which to pin all the woes of his country, has proved a convenient tool often exploited to maximum effect.

The ‘Shia’ threat has been used at various times, in a number of tricky circumstances to consolidate power in the Gulf but this time it is generally being left well alone as GCC states wait and watch to see how things with Iran pan out.

Oman for its part refused to endorse a proposal put forward by Riyadh for closer GCC integration, in effect clearly marking itself as independent from Council authority. This came after it was revealed the Sultanate, situated at the entrance of the Gulf, had hosted secret talks between US and Iranian officials in a bid to facilitate meetings and a possible agreement. Meanwhile, Qatar and Kuwait remained subdued in their stance.

Bridge building

Kuwait emerged as a bridge builder and moderniser in a region where absolute monarchy remains the order of the day.

The country with a population of just over three million stands now at the forefront of the Council in terms of human rights and democracy. With a parliament that boasts representation from women as well as religious minorities, Kuwait is the only sheikhdom where even princely rulers are held to account, as shown last December when premier Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak along with health minister Mohamed Al Adullah, were grilled for over two days in parliament over their record in office. They may have faced a no confidence vote by their peers, but their victory over their opponents the following day, revealed Kuwait to be forging ahead in areas such as a women’s and human rights, democratic representation and political accountability of the ruling family.

The devastating effects of the Syrian conflict, which continues to spill well beyond the country’s borders, were much on everyone’s mind. Here again, the two regional giants were at odds. While Saudi Arabia supports the ousting of Bashar Assad, Iran is determined he should stay in power in Damascus. For now at least, the Kingdom’s GCC partners seem to have agreed to allow them both to disagree.

When Syrians first took to the streets to overthrow their government like their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, the world’s public opinion was largely sympathetic to their plight. After all here was a minority ruling over a majority with an iron fist and depriving it of its basic democratic rights.

However as the conflict saw fighters flocking to Syria from across the Muslim world in a bid to overthrow what was seen as a despotic, dynastic leadership, the initial sympathy started to wane.

Shifting agendas

These Islamist fighters or Jihadis were clearly fighting to bring about a theocracy and not the much aspired for democracy so often talked about.

At first the fighters were targeting the Syrian army, hoping to force a reluctant West to join the war effort in removing Assad. With massacres of civilians becoming a regular occurrence and in the fog of war, initially responsibility was put squarely on the Syrian government, and no doubt many of the massacres were the work of the Syrian army. However, as the conflict took on a clear sectarian direction, the ‘foreign fighters’ became involved in numerous crimes against civilians. Assad forces, once described as the only guilty party, were now sharing the blame with their adversaries from Syria and beyond.

With Russia’s President Putin successfully shelving talks of a NATO backed intervention by forcing Assad to destroy his stock of chemical weapons, the Syrian government has clearly regained the upper hand and many of Assad’s opponents have decided that an Alawite leadership is preferable to an Islamist theocracy.

The majority of GCC members, realising that a conflict with Iran would result in catastrophic consequences to their sparsely populated nations, are looking to adopt a more neutral if not pacifist position. First with Oman facilitating talks and Kuwait taking the lead in forcing its council members to adopt more democratic practises that would no doubt ease some of the social tensions still simmering in the region.

For all its faults, despite years of isolation, Iran has managed to force the world’s most powerful nations to sit around a negotiating table and accept its right to develop nuclear technology. And while the Iranian economy remains crippled by ongoing sanctions it has, in that regard, managed to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s recent rapprochement with France might be seen as a way of brandishing the temptation of a lucrative arms deal with a new partner in a bid to worry its former close ally the United States, now a weakened political entity. With the Muslim world clearly marking itself along sectarian lines as a result of the Syrian conflict, the only hope for future peace in the Middle East is for Gulf leaders, both Arab and Persian, to remember that basic Islamic teaching: that your neighbour should, at all costs, remain your closest ally.

Hafsa Kara-Mustapha

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