Gulf: Promoting Collective Security through Regional Dialogue
Gulf: Promoting Collective Security through Regional Dialogue
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 9 minutes

Gulf: Promoting Collective Security through Regional Dialogue

Dialogue efforts in the Gulf have stalled amid rising tensions. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains how the EU and its member states can help revive Saudi-Iranian and other talks.

Creating new channels of communication between enemies in the Gulf is the best way to prevent frequent flare-ups from escalating into open conflict. Tensions in the region are on the rise with negotiations to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal sputtering and huge popular protests roiling the Islamic Republic. They spiked in November 2022, when Saudi intelligence warned that Iran was planning attacks on the Kingdom akin to those three years earlier on Abqaiq and Khurais, two major processing facilities run by the state oil company Saudi Aramco. (Yemen’s Huthi rebels claimed they had launched the Aramco strikes, which caused significant damage, but Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, blamed Tehran.) Riyadh and Tehran managed to avoid a more serious confrontation at the time, but a comparable attack, this time coming directly from Iran, could set the region on fire. It would certainly scuttle nascent diplomatic efforts at improving collective security in the Gulf, which at present are proceeding in a stop-start manner along two broad tracks: first, bilateral discussions between Iran and each of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); and secondly, a regionwide forum known as the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. 

The European Union (EU) and its member states, which have been supporting these regional dialogue initiatives, should take the reported threat of a new attack as an impetus to accelerate them. Helping Saudi-Iranian talks get moving again, ideally at the foreign minister level, is key. Those discussions could then serve as a bridge to the Baghdad Conference track and other Gulf regional dialogue efforts. The EU, and certain of its member states, could continue to act as facilitators accepted by both sides.

The EU and its member states should: 

  • Appoint a senior diplomat with a non-partisan reputation in the region as EU special representative for the Gulf as soon as possible. Doing so will allow the EU to make progress on the action points laid out in the Joint Communication on a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf”. To send a clear message that engagement with the Gulf is a top European foreign policy priority, the Representative should have significant experience throughout the Gulf, strong working relations with the Saudi and Iranian governments, in particular, and an established profile in international affairs. 
  • Through the new Representative and other channels, press for resumption of the all-important Saudi-Iranian bilateral talks as well as continuation of Emirati-Iranian dialogue in the EU’s own bilateral talks with regional actors. Both sets of discussions can help soothe frictions and lower threat perceptions between the Gulf states and Iran, and also indirectly de-escalate tensions between the U.S. and Israel, on one side, and Iran on the other, in the various Middle East conflict zones. 
  • Again through the Representative and other channels, explore prospects for a continuous regionwide dialogue. In so doing, they should draw on lessons from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to assist in building a similar, more targeted process in the Gulf, which could proceed on multiple independent tracks, and include confidence-building measures within the context of enhanced regional economic cooperation and the green energy transition.
A destroyed installation in Saudi Arabia's Khurais oil processing plant is pictured on September 20, 2019. AFP / Fayez Nureldine

Regional Dialogue 

Various dialogue efforts have developed in the Gulf in the last few years, after more than a decade of high tensions of which the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks marked the zenith. The main source of conflict has been the struggle between Iran and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for regional hegemony. The GCC countries have looked askance at Iran ever since its 1979 revolution threatened to spill over to mobilise Shiite Muslims in Arab states, especially Lebanon and various Gulf monarchies. They have watched with alarm as Iran embarked on a nuclear program and, following the popular uprisings in Arab countries in 2011, used the turmoil to back non-state armed actors from the Huthis in Yemen to paramilitaries in Iraq to project its power in the Middle East. A secondary conflict driver has been competing visions of the role of Islam in politics, which provoked a bitter quarrel between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, on one hand, and Qatar (backed by Türkiye), on the other. The latter had supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Arab countries affected by the uprisings, threatening the interests of the former set of countries, particularly in Egypt. They battled or competed with each other by proxy in conflict zones as far afield as Syria, Libya and Somalia. From 2017 to 2021, the Saudis and their allies blockaded Qatar by air, land and sea. 

The latter tensions were first to ease. In January 2021, the six GCC members signed the Al-Ula declaration, formally ending the confrontation. Since then, intra-GCC reconciliation has progressed, albeit unevenly. Qatari-Saudi dialogue has moved at the fastest pace. Direct flights resumed, land borders reopened soon after the declaration was issued, and Doha and Riyadh re-established formal diplomatic relations. The two heads of state have subsequently met several times, and the countries have formed new institutional partnerships to encourage greater trade and investment. Qatari-Emirati ties have also improved, a bit more slowly. But Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup helped speed up reconciliation with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the opening ceremony, and Emirati President Mohamed bin Zayed also visited Doha during the tournament, in two particularly powerful symbols of a revived Gulf unity. At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue between Qatar and Bahrain is almost non-existent, though Manama lifted visa restrictions on Qatari nationals in 2022, seemingly reflecting a desire to turn the page. In January, the UAE gathered the leaders of Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt and Jordan in Abu Dhabi in what looked like another step toward intra-GCC reconciliation. 

Soon after the intra-GCC rift began healing in early 2021, serious contacts between Tehran and Gulf capitals got under way as well. The most important track is the bilateral dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by Iraq, which began in April 2021 and continued through four further meetings before stalling a year later. The talks have focused on Saudi concerns about Iran’s regional activities, especially in Yemen, and Iran’s desire for renewed diplomatic ties, which had broken down after a mob attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016. On 20 December 2022, Saudi and Iranian officials met on the sidelines of Baghdad Conference discussions in the Jordanian capital Amman, reportedly agreeing to restart the bilateral dialogue. Keeping this line of communication open is vital. It will help Saudi Arabia and Iran avoid misreading each other, thus reducing the risk of miscalculation in their standoff, especially as talks about reviving the Iran nuclear deal have broken down and conflicts involving Iran-backed non-state armed groups drag on. The latest threat of violence came in late 2022, when officials in Riyadh claimed they had received intelligence that Tehran was preparing to attack Saudi Arabia in retaliation for its alleged financing of a London media outlet, Iran International, that has vocally backed the anti-establishment protests in Iran.

Resumed progress in the Saudi-Iranian talks could ... help assuage U.S. concerns about Iran’s role in the Gulf.

Resumed progress in the Saudi-Iranian talks could also help assuage U.S. concerns about Iran’s role in the Gulf, given Washington’s closeness to Riyadh. This track affects others as well. Senior officials in several GCC countries have told Crisis Group that what happens on the Saudi-Iranian front will determine whether a broader regional dialogue – of the sort described below – takes off. Forward movement on this track would help as well to rejuvenate UAE-Iran bilateral talks, which started in 2019, and led to restoration of diplomatic ties in 2022. These are essential to reducing risks of violent confrontation based on Iranian fears that Israel may try to gain a foothold in the Gulf via the UAE and Bahrain following the latter’s signing of the Abraham Accords. Iran and Israel have engaged in maritime and aerial tit-for-tats across the region; the UAE is now well placed to help contain any escalation. 

At the same time that the bilateral tracks slowed, an important attempt at multilateral dialogue, the Baghdad Conference, picked up pace with its second iteration in December. While the event saw little discussion of substance, the fact that it brought together all the Gulf’s main players was significant in and of itself. Iran sent its foreign minister to Amman despite its poor relations with Jordan, its increasing international isolation, and its discomfort with the presence of French diplomats and others from outside the region. Saudi Arabia also sent its foreign minister, an encouraging sign of openness to constructive engagement with Iran, given that it has so far rejected an Iranian request to raise the bilateral talks to the foreign minister level. The Baghdad process is receiving strong French backing and plans for the next meeting are under way, suggesting a certain momentum for broader multilateral dialogue.

What the EU Can Do

The Gulf region has been in a state of perpetual disquiet. The failure so far to revive the Iran nuclear deal has injected new uncertainty into the relationship between Iran and its Western-backed neighbours. Absent reliable channels of communication between adversaries, it is anyone’s guess where flare-ups might lead. Bilateral talks between Iran and Gulf Arab states are an important initial step in opening such channels and thus reducing chances of inadvertent escalation. But the region needs mechanisms for keeping relations on an even keel in the long run. The best sort would be a regionwide dialogue effort, loosely modelled on the CSCE experience. 

Yet to move from bilateral to multilateral talks has proven to be a major challenge. A number of factors add to the difficulty: distrust among allies within the GCC; Gulf Arab states’ insistence that Saudi Arabia lead them in such an effort, with UN Security Council and possibly direct U.S. backing; Iran’s countervailing demand that the U.S. have no direct part; and all sides’ preconditions concerning matters that can be resolved only as a result of regional dialogue. 

The EU and its member states, preferably with UN support and a U.S. green light, can step in here to play an important, constructive role, led by an EU special representative for the Gulf, a position they should promptly create and fill with a senior diplomat who has deep regional experience and is viewed as neutral by the relevant players. The Europeans have long held back on this appointment, waiting for nuclear talks to come to fruition. Yet the representative should be appointed, and regional dialogue facilitated, with or without a nuclear deal, whose full restoration would likely have only limited positive impact on interstate relations and whose failure can only aggravate them.

The EU special representative, once appointed, should push for regional stability and dialogues (as laid out in the EU’s Joint Communication) as a priority. Job one is to get Saudi-Iranian talks going again. On the Emirati side, while Europe played no role in starting the bilateral UAE-Iran track, the representative could encourage the two sides to build on these talks to advance a regionwide dialogue. 

In parallel, European actors should start exploring the possibilities for such a multilateral venture. Using expertise gathered during the CSCE process, as well as their good offices and (mostly) good standing in the region, and building on the Baghdad Conference and bilateral talks already under way, the EU and member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland, could test ideas with the pertinent players in the Gulf, starting with intra-GCC relations and moving to include Iran and Iraq. These ideas – about objectives, process, contours and agenda – should form the basis for any effort at starting a regionwide dialogue. The Europeans should then pledge diplomatic support and, if necessary, provide the venues for such an undertaking. 

The process should involve several parallel tracks that focus on different areas of cooperation and conflict, and proceed at different paces and as independently from each other as possible. Initial meetings should focus on actionable confidence-building and de-confliction measures, ranging from cooperation on religious pilgrimages to more difficult issues like establishing a military-to-military hotline or a maritime dialogue. States could also sign a statement of principles committing to non-interference and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as disavowing the use of force. Then, the EU and its member states could back a range of projects to improve people-to-people exchanges among Gulf citizens to bolster the high-level political dialogue taking place in parallel; promote enhanced regional economic cooperation; and offer technical assistance in support of countries’ transition to renewable sources of energy.

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