A Tale of Two Summits

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Muharram 03, 1444 2022-08-01

Opinion

by Zafar Bangash (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 6, Muharram, 1444)

Last month, there were two summits held virtually back-to-back. The first in the Saudi port city of Jeddah was held on July 16 while the second three days later in Tehran. The contrast between the two could not be greater. One was held to take the Middle East back to a dark past while the other chalked out a new bold strategy for the future.

In Jeddah, US President Joe Biden attempted to act like the old boss dictating terms to the potentates of the Middle East but did not gain much traction. In Tehran, the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met as equals. While the meeting was ostensibly to advance the Astana process to bring about peace in Syria, a number of important agreements were also signed with far-reaching consequences for the region as well as the world at large.

When Biden claimed that the US will remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East, his words were not taken seriously, for obvious reasons. The US is a has-been superpower that no longer has the ability to get its way. The beatings its forces got in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated to Middle Eastern dictators that the US cannot be relied upon for protection.

In fact, the manner in which Biden was received at Jeddah airport showed what was in store for him at the so-called ‘Security summit’ in Jeddah. Unlike past presidents, Biden was greeted by low level Saudi officials: the governor of Makkah, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, and Saudi ambassador to Washington, Reema bint Bandar.

This contrasted sharply with the lavish reception thrown for Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump when he visited Riyadh in May 2017. There was much pomp and ceremony, ceremonial guards’ parade, sword dance and a camel cavalcade. Trump was treated as royalty; he loved every moment of it. Biden was treated as dirt. The wound was self-inflicted.

Things did not get any better at the summit. Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) greeted Biden with a fist bump and then without making eye contact or speaking, led him to meet the ailing King Salman. At the summit when Biden raised the question of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, MbS shot back by reminding him about the US torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Biden had merely said about Khashoggi’s murder: “if anything occurs like that again they will get that response and much more.” In other words, forget about Khashoggi’s brutal murder; the US needs Saudi Arabia to pump more oil. MbS made no such commitment and took Biden’s statement as a green light to continue to brutalize Saudis that speak out about human rights.

Even Biden’s pledge that the US will not walk away from the Middle East leaving the field to Russia, China and Iran was greeted by the Arabian potentates with a hardly repressed yawn. His call to take on Iran and “prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons”—Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons—was similarly treated with disdain.

In fact, a day before Biden made the no-nuclear weapons for Iran remarks, a senior Emirati official said the UAE would not join any anti-Iran alliance. Anwar Gargash, advisor to UAE president on foreign affairs, dismissed the idea of a ‘Middle East NATO’ as merely a “theoretical” concept and that confrontation was not an option for Abu Dhabi.

We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeting any other country in the region and I specifically mention Iran,” he said. Gargash further said: “The UAE is not going to be a party to any group of countries that sees confrontation as a direction.” This was a reference to the idea of a Middle Eastern NATO floated by the US. It would bring in Zionist Israel as well into a tighter military alliance with the Arabian regimes.

He also revealed that the UAE was in the process of sending an ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Our conversation is ongoing ... we are in the process of sending an ambassador to Tehran. All these areas of rebuilding bridges are ongoing,” he revealed.

On July 26, the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discussed ways of “boosting bilateral relations and areas of cooperation for the benefit of both countries,” the Emirati state news agency WAM reported. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Amir-Abdollahian “welcomed the enhancement of the level of ties between the two countries” as “an important step in the process of developing bilateral relations.”

The day after the Jeddah summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told CNN that talks are going on between Iran and the GCC states for improvement of relations and the focus should be on engagement and changing Iran’s behaviour. It was also announced that Saudi and Iranian officials will again be meeting in Baghdad to advance the process of rapprochement. The octogenarian American president must have come away stunned from his Middle East tour.

The only thing Biden got out of his Jeddah meeting was the Saudis’ announcement to allow overflights of Israeli commercial planes over its territory. This was couched in the language of allowing a number of countries to use Saudi airspace. The Saudi announcement merely confirmed what was already occurring.

In Tehran, meanwhile, the three leaders demanded the withdrawal of all US forces from Syria that have illegally occupied parts of the country. The Americans are also stealing Syrian oil. This is neither new nor surprising.

In Tehran, meanwhile, a number of economic and strategic agreements were signed including $40-billion Russian investment in developing Iran’s oil and gas sector. Turkey similar pledged to purchase more Iranian gas and oil.

The so-called Jeddah summit wanted to take the region to its inglorious past while the Tehran summit was forward-looking. It emphasized peaceful co-existence, good neighbourly relations and prevention of US-NATO interference in regional affairs.

Welcome to the multipolar world order in which there is no room for US hegemony and mischief-making.

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