August 14, 2023
The Persian Gulf is witnessing a resurgence of interest in multilateral diplomacy and economic integration through a series of upcoming initiatives. Three notable regional initiatives or summit-like gatherings are set to take place later this year, bringing together all member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—alongside Iran and Iraq. The gatherings are facilitated by either the United Nations, China, or the European Union (EU). Intriguingly, the United States will not be involved in any of these upcoming meetings.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is reportedly organizing an eight country regional forum in New York in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The Secretary-General has had a mandate since 1988 through Security Council Resolution 598 to facilitate dialogue between neighboring countries in the Persian Gulf. Paragraph 8 of Resolution 598 (1987), which was the basis of the ceasefire for the Iran-Iraq War, "requests the Secretary-General to examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other states of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region."
With an expected focus on the principles of good neighborliness under the U.N. Charter, the forum presents an excellent opportunity for multilateral dialogue and diplomatic engagements among the eight participating countries. Back in October 2020, Russia had also attempted to use the same U.N. framework to promote its proposal for collective security in the Persian Gulf during a special session of the U.N. Security Council.
Russia aimed to find a role for the U.N. to "be involved in creating a non-conflict atmosphere, encouraging regional actors to engage in dialogue, mediating efforts, and guaranteeing respect for future agreements." That initiative largely failed due to the Trump administration's opposition to any regional framework that would have included Iran. The upcoming meeting in September will be the first meeting in which representatives of Iran and the GCC states will meet since the 2007 GCC summit in Doha, and it will be the first meeting in which all eight littoral states will sit at the same table together.
China, having successfully contributed to the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is organizing a summit in Beijing this fall, bringing together the eight countries. China has the ultimate objective of creating an "oasis of security" in the Persian Gulf through multilateral efforts since at least 2020. The Gulf plays a crucial role in China's Belt and Road Initiative and its westward expansion, owing to its favorable geographic position and proximity to the Red Sea. China's interests extend beyond purely economic motives, as it seeks to play a more active and leading role in the region's political and security affairs. The summit in Beijing will likely include dialogue on security-related issues as well.
But the most significant gathering is the next Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which is expected to take place in December in Iraq. This region-led gathering has already taken place twice—first in Baghdad in August 2021, and then in Amman in December 2022—with representatives from Iraq, Iran, the six GCC states, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey coming together to discuss regional cooperation. The first conference was directly supported by the French president, and the European Union was also included in the second gathering. Moreover, the EU has appointed a special representative for the Gulf and is expected to deepen its engagements in the region. "Baghdad 3" will be focused on exploring practical areas for regional economic integration under the new regional environment.
Ultimately, the revitalized bilateral and multilateral interactions in the region align with the understanding that regional infrastructure and connectivity plans must be part of a broader regional integration agenda. Looking beyond individual initiatives, it is important to emphasize the critical role of regional economic integration in shaping the future of the Middle East. The successful implementation of ambitious development agendas in the region depends on creating a peaceful environment, free from constant threats of military attacks or embargoes. In a region historically characterized by geopolitical tensions and conflicts, prioritizing economic cooperation can foster mutual interdependence, incentivize peaceful resolutions to disputes, and create an atmosphere conducive to growth and development. Regional infrastructure and connectivity projects can serve as conduits for enhanced trade, investment, and cultural exchanges, ultimately benefiting the entire region.
But while the regional countries are engaged diplomatically on multiple fronts, and other global powers and players are riding the reconciliatory wave in the region and strengthening their strategic foothold, Washington is pursuing an entirely different agenda. There continues to be an Iran-centric approach in U.S. policies toward the Middle East, where containing and isolating Tehran is a strategic priority. There are also reports of a possible NATO-like mutual security pact with Saudi Arabia along with increased military assistance and arms sales in exchange of normalization of relations with Israel. At the same time, the U.S. sanctions on Iran is the primary obstacles on the way of closer regional engagements. The fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will be an important factor in shaping the level of economic engagements between Iran and the Arab-majority states, and more importantly, the security architecture of the region at large.
Even with the United States absent from the upcoming multilateral gatherings, the pervasive influence of Washington on the Persian Gulf's geopolitics will persist, significantly shaping the trajectory of diplomatic interactions in the region. The success of events in New York, Beijing, and Baghdad will remain contingent on the policy decisions made in the White House.
Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor