Saudi crown prince seeks to normalise relations with Gulf rulers

Mohammed bin Salman meets other Arab leaders ahead of Riyadh summit next week

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to wind up a timely tour of the Gulf ahead of the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council summit in Riyadh which opens on December 14th.

On an official level, he aims to reinforce security co-operation, strengthen bilateral relations, increase trade and investment among council members, and advance the recalibration ofrelations with Iran.

On the personal plane, he seeks to normalise relations with Gulf rulers that have come under strain due to the Saudi-led war in Yemen and uneasiness over global condemnation of the brutal killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Sensitivies over these issues may have eased due to the weekend visit to the kingdom of French president Emmanuel Macron, the first by a Western leader since the murder, ahead of the prince's Gulf tour.

While in Oman, he encouraged officials to continue efforts to mediate an end to the stalemated war with Yemeni rebel Houthis, who enjoy limited Iranian support. Cool Omani-Saudi relations could be warmed by deals for $30 billion (€26.6 billion) in investment by Saudi firms in the economically troubled sultanate in petrochemicals, renewable energy, green hydrogen, fisheries and farming.

Ahead of the prince's arrival in Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Tahoon bin Zayed, Emirati national security chief and brother of the Emirati president, flew to Tehran where he met his counterpart Ali Shamkhani and president Ebrahim Raisi. Sheikh Tahoon celebrated the event as a "turning point" in contacts begun in November when Iran's deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited Dubai.

Both Emiratis and Saudis seek to revive relations with non-Arab Iran, which has long been regarded by the Arabs as their regional rival. Having cut diplomatic relations in 2016, Riyadh has had four rounds of Iraq-brokered talks with Tehran since April and their foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

Progress in this effort depends on the outcome of ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 agreement limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

The process of restoring ties with Iran could also receive a boost from Prince Mohammed's meetings in Qatar, his third port of call. Along with Oman and Kuwait, Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has maintained friendly relations with Tehran despite Saudi and Emirati pressure to cut ties.

Qatar's refusal to do so prompted the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis to blockade and boycott Qatar from June 2017 until these measures were lifted in January of this year. Since then Saudi Arabia has returned its ambassador to Qatar but Bahrain the Emirates have not.

Prince Mohammed is set to conclude his tour in moderately independent Kuwait and closely allied Bahrain.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times