x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Region's states to tackle Syria crisis anew

Arabian Gulf states and Iran meet at summit of Non-Aligned Movement, and hope for better results than when they met at Mecca.

Representatives of Arabian Gulf states will meet those from Iran today to discuss one of the thorniest issues to mar their relationship: Syria.

The meeting is the second between the sides this month. Two weeks ago, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joined Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for an emergency summit in Mecca.

The UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia will send representatives to attend a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran for talks today and tomorrow, Iranian media reported.

The summit offers another chance for the countries to hash out their diverging positions on the Syrian crisis - or at least discuss them.

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are said to actively support opposition to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, Iran has remained a staunch ally of his regime.

"I don't think the Gulf countries' attendance represents rapprochement," said Elizabeth Iskander, a fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. "Although such meetings can give states with a publicly complex relationship a 'safe' platform through which to meet on the fringes."

At the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Mecca two weeks ago, Syria's membership in the body was suspended - a move the Iranian delegation dismissed as a way of avoiding rather than resolving the country's crisis.

Despite the disagreements, however, many analysts said that Mr Ahmadinejad's participation in the Saudi-hosted conference was a signal that discussion among the sides was possible. In Tehran, Saudi Arabia will be represented by the king's son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Saud.

The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehman-Parast, said the summit would focus on Syria, and he promised to present a "comprehensive" proposal to end the fighting, according to the Fars news agency.

"Iran wants diplomatically to say, 'We failed to pass the exam in Mecca, but we will be able to do something here'," said Mahjoob Zweiri, an expert in Arab-Iranian relations at Qatar University.

But Mr Zweiri said that significant cooperation between Iran and the Arabian Gulf countries on Syria seemed unlikely.

"Iran feels more isolated as a result of the Arab Spring within Arab nations," he said. "The region is moving in a direction that Iran does not support."

In opening the NAM gathering on Sunday, the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, argued that the aspirations of the Arab Spring could succeed only if the protest movements were "free of foreign intimidation and manipulation" - a charge Tehran has often levelled at western and Arabian Gulf support of the rebels.

In addition to the crisis in Syria, several disputes have clouded Iran's relations with Bahrain and the UAE in recent months.

Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Tehran in March 2011 amid accusations that Iran was provoking protests by the country's Shiite-majority population.

Although Manama restored its ambassador to Tehran on August 12, Iran failed to reciprocate, accusing the Bahraini government of a crackdown against activists.

Iran disputes the UAE's sovereignty over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb.

Sheikh Saud bin Rashid, a Supreme Council member and Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, will lead the UAE delegation to the summit, the state news agency Wam reported.

Sheikh Saud will be joined by Sheikh Saif bin Rashid Al Mualla, the chairman of Umm Al Quwain's Department of Economic Development; Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs; and Saif Mohammed Al Zaabi, the UAE Ambassador to Iran.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae