MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA - Saudi Arabia's King Salman opened an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in the holy city of Mecca on Thursday with a call for the international community to use all means to confront Iran, but he also said the kingdom extends its hand for peace.
King Salman was speaking at the first of three high-level summits in Mecca that were hastily convened after a spike in tensions between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran. That King Salman could bring regional leaders and heads of state to Mecca so rapidly reflects the kingdom's weight in the region and its desire to project a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran.
Tensions have also spiked between Tehran and Washington in recent weeks, with the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. The crisis is rooted in last year's decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Speaking at a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council, King Salman said the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month requires “serious efforts to protect the security and the gains” of the six energy-rich Arab nations.
Iran denies being involved in the attacks.
The king called on the international community to thwart Iran's behaviors ``and using all means to stop the Iranian regime from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, harboring global and regional terrorist entities and threatening international waterways.''
He added that Saudi Arabia remains committed to extending its hand for peace and prosperity of the region.
Attending Thursday night's GCC summit were the leaders of Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as senior officials from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.
That meeting will be immediately followed with an emergency summit of the 22-nation Arab League, minus Syria whose membership remains suspended.
Putting forth a unified position on Iran, however, faces many obstacles. Within the once clubby GCC, there are major differences between countries regarding Iran. Oman, for example, has relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and acts as a facilitator of talks.
Qatar, meanwhile, is facing a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt over its foreign policies. The diplomatic standoff has pushed Qatar closer to Iran.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani's attended the Mecca summits on Thursday, marking the highest-level visit to Saudi Arabia by a Qatari official since the 2017 rift erupted.
Cool start to gathering
As the Gulf leaders gathered to begin their meeting, Al Thani shook hands with his host, King Salman, but was not seen making any eye contact with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed or Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman very quickly shook the Qatari royal's hand, but they did not appear to exchange words.
Washington has tried unsuccessfully to mediate an end to the diplomatic standoff between its Gulf Arab allies. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Thursday the U.S. welcomes Saudi efforts to discuss Iranian threats in the region.
“Gulf unity is essential in confronting Iran, to confronting their influence, to countering terrorism writ large, and, of course, to ensuring a prosperous future for the Gulf,” she said.
Another summit is expected on Friday, focusing largely on Palestinian statehood and independence. It will bring together leaders from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.
Leaders shown drone, missiles
Upon their arrival at the airport in Saudi Arabia, leaders were shown Yemeni rebel military items, such as a destroyed drone, missiles and mortar shells used in the conflict with the Saudis. They were given a brief explanation of the weapons on display by Col. Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of helping arm the rebel Houthis and being behind the Houthi drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month.
Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf urged Muslim nations to confront with “all means of force and firmness” the recent attacks.
An Iranian official was at the preparatory OIC meeting where al-Assaf spoke Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.
The summits coincide with the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of intense worship when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
Saudi Arabia will seek to use to the optics of the Mecca gatherings to send a clear and powerful message to Iran, which itself is also a member of the OIC.
Sudan leader to attend
Among the heads of state gathered in Mecca are Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah, and Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan's ruling military council.
It marks the first international conference for Burhan since the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir from power in April.
Also participating is Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose country has uneasy ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly after the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.
Al-Assaf's comments on Iran appeared to mirror remarks made by President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a “very strong response” from the U.S.
Meanwhile, Trump said this week the U.S. wasn't “looking to hurt Iran at all.” During a visit to Tokyo this week, Trump appeared to welcome negotiations with Iran.
“We're not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear,” Trump said. “We're looking for no nuclear weapons.”
U.S. troops headed to Qatar
Also on Wednesday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops would be deployed to Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the Middle East. Another 600 have had their deployment in the region extended.
It's unclear how many of those troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia. Sending a large number of troops to Saudi Arabia could potentially spark a backlash from Muslims around the world because the country is also home to Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida launched the Sept. 11 attacks, in part over America's military presence in the kingdom.
The late King Abdullah refused to allow U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia for the Iraq invasion in 2003, though he permitted them during the first Gulf War in 1991.