As US and Iran pull back from brink, Riyadh prepares for all scenarios

Foreign ministers from Red Sea coastal countries met to establish a new regional organisation.
Sunday 12/01/2020
A call for unity. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan leads the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Arab and African countries bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, in Riyadh, January 6.(SPA)
A call for unity. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan leads the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Arab and African countries bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, in Riyadh, January 6.(SPA)

LONDON - As the prospect of war between Iran and the United States receded since the killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Gulf countries worked to defuse tensions while preparing for all possible scenarios.

Iraqi President Barham Salih’s website said he received a call from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, during which the king stressed the need for Iraq to steer clear of international disputes and for Baghdad not to make itself a place for settling scores.

King Salman pointed out the importance of self-restraint, the statement added. In a call with Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz called for “efforts to calm the situation.”

On his Facebook page, Abdul-Mahdi said he and the Saudi crown prince discussed the “difficult situation Iraq and the region are going through and exchanged viewpoints about the expected repercussions.”

Saudi Arabia sent Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to the United States and the United Kingdom for talks to de-escalate tensions in the region.

While in Washington, Prince Khalid met with US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and the US national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

Prince Khalid talked with British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and David Quarrey, international affairs adviser and deputy national security adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a stop in London.

“Saudi Arabia’s key issue and the key wish is to de-escalate,” Mohammed al-Sulaimi, chairman of the Rasanah think-tank in Riyadh, told the Wall Street Journal.

“We know the Iranians are angry but, over time, they may think calmly and rationally and realise the dangers of any hard response against the Americans, against their interests or against the region.”

Sulaimi said Saudi Arabia supports Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions against Iran, believing it is “the best among alternatives because the other option is war and nobody wants war.”

Gulf Cooperation Council members are wary that military clashes between the United States and Iran could destabilise the region, particularly because the countries are within range of Iranian ballistic missiles.

Arsenals held by Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen are also concerns. Iran is suspected of supplying proxies with missiles and drones.

Last May, four ships belonging to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Norway near the Emirati port of Fujairah were targeted in what the United Arab Emirates described as a “sabotage attack.” That was followed in June by attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz.

Investigations implicated Iran but Tehran denied involvement, even as it threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.

With the heightened tensions between Washington and Iran, Saudi state-backed oil tanker giant Bahri suspended shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, the Wall Street Journal reported, with other major shippers expected to follow suit.

Foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti signed a charter January 6 in Riyadh establishing the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to protect maritime routes.

“The importance of our meeting today comes at this critical stage in which we need to expedite the pace of our countries’ cooperation and consolidate our capabilities in order to confront any risks or challenges facing our region, as well as to protect the security of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said.