Skip to main content

Riyadh's moment of truth in a time of war

For the Saudis, hosting two overlapping summits - the GCC and the Syrian opposition, the time has surely come to deliver

The GCC summit began Wednesday, one day after a Syria conference got under way in the Saudi capital. With security in Riyadh tight and the flags of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council bedecking the city, the stakes are high, one could argue never higher, for King Salman and his favoured son Mohammed bin Salman to actually achieve some forward momentum, to show some concrete results.

GCC summits, this is the 36th, do not have a particularly good track record. Vague commitments, couched in grandiloquent language, dutifully reflected in tame government-controlled media outlets, manage to give summits past and present a quite surreal flavour. Little of real import is puffed up, little of substance is achieved, and problems are swept under large and very expensive carpets.

But this time there are big issues the ruling families need to get their heads around. Not least of which is the growing threat they face from the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, if you prefer the mocking moniker.

Consider who is coming and who is not: amongst the battle forces included are Ahrar al-Sham who fight alongside the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah Front. Al-Nusrah, you may be relieved to hear, was not invited. But then neither were the Kurds, probably the most cohesive fighting group in the war against Daesh.

Another brigade in town is Jaysh al Islam, heavily backed by the Saudis, and with a leader who has previously praised Osama bin Laden.

Harshly Islamist it may well be, yet it now claims to be a kinder and gentler voice open to talks with the moderate Syrian opposition, groups such as the main Western-backed political alliance - the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces with a base in Turkey, and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, which operates in Damascus and is tolerated by Bashar al-Assad. They were both invited to Riyadh.

That such a disparate group can be sticky-taped together in time for a broader peace conference involving the Syrian regime in early January is highly unlikely but you can’t damn the Saudis for trying.

As unwieldy as that project looks, consider what faces the GCC: plunging oil prices, strained relations with America, Daesh, anxieties over Iran, an incompetent Egyptian government to whom it has given billions and that elephant in the room, Yemen.

How much will the Saudis’ GCC partners question a war that thus far has killed more than 5,000 civilians, many of them women and children and put another 21 million Yemenis at risk of starvation? Will they query the wisdom of bombing the Houthis while allowing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh to grow like topsy in the southern half of the country?

Will they ponder the efficacy of creating another failed state, another incubator for terrorism, and one that borders on both Saudi Arabia and Oman?

The Yemen war is Mohammed bin Salman’s signature statement. It is one that says he, unlike the older family members he has displaced, is a warrior, a man of decisiveness, a bold leader unafraid of repercussions or Western opprobrium. In a summit chaired by his father the king, it is most unlikely  anyone will have the temerity to raise questions about the bloody fiasco his powerful son has inflicted upon the people of Yemen. The possible exception may be the Omanis.

But one thing the GCC will no doubt spend a good deal of time looking at is how to further tighten the screws on dissent. Already in the arena of human rights among the most repressive regimes in the world, countries like Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will continue to use the war on terror as an excuse to all but silence any criticism of the ruling elite.

Bloggers, journalists, human rights and political activists are routinely detained and frequently tortured before being sentenced to long jail terms or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, to public beheadings.

No doubt this GCC summit, like others before it, will speak once again of economic union, a common currency and a unified military structure. It will complain and bluster about Iran. That sort of thing has been going on for years.

But with two summits on the go at the same time, there may indeed be, and not before time, some real substance, some commitment to action. If only because the impatient and aggressive Mohammed bin Salman quite enjoys knocking heads together. To what end and to what effect though remains very much to be seen.

- Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist in Gulf affairs. Follow him @BillLaw49.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Saudi Defence Minister Mohamed bin Salman (L) and Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef attend the 36th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on 9 December 2015. (AFP).

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.