Times are changing, and most reporting on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is stuck in the past. The OIC was founded when a group of Israeli extremists started a fire at al-Aqsa mosque on 21 August 1969 with the hope of destroying it. It is based in Saudi-Arabia (and its current Secretary-General is Saudi: Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen), and so in the past proceedings have predictably been dominated by Saudi politics.
It has, therefore, invariably issued fairly lame statements in reaction to Israeli infractions and atrocities, with little action ever displayed. The image that comes to mind is of an old Arab proverb said to originate with Imam Shafi’i: the dogs bark but the caravan moves on – الكلاب تنبح والقافلة تسير (which actually rhymes in Turkish it ürür, kervan yürür), where the caravan is the Israeli colonial project (and you know who the dogs are).
This year, however, the Presidency happened to be held by Turkey, and Erdoğan, who rarely misses a trick, took the opportunity of convening an emergency meeting of the OIC to Istanbul to respond to Trump’s outrageous infraction of international law in his unilateral US announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: 48 states responded to Erdoğan’s call within 7 days. The change of venue seems to have brought with it a change of mood. Dogs are second class citizens in Turkey – Turks, and Istanbulites in particular are crazy about cats. The metaphor of the barking dog therefore no longer applies. Erdoğan’s performance was more like a cat screeching. So what happens when a cat screeches?
Aside from Turkey leading the OIC conference to officially declare East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, the Turks vowed to establish an embassy to Palestine there. Erdoğan is also using these declarations as the beginning of a major initiative in the UN both to support Palestinian rights and to sideline the US from any involvement in future Middle East peace talks. Mahmoud Abbas surprisingly echoed this demand, despite the normally supine attitude of the Palestinian Authority towards the US.
But there were a number of extremely important subtexts to the meeting, entirely missed or misunderstood by both Western and Arabic media. Iranian President Rouhani was grinning like a Cheshire cat, pleased that Turkey is in the front like diplomatically on this matter, whilst the overt confrontation in the Middle East is between the Trump administration and his country. The unprecedentedly close relationship between Turkey and Iran forged in the course of the Astana peace process was gaining even more oxygen.
The Trump administration’s irrationality in regard to the Jerusalem declaration has all but scuppered US diplomatic credibility in the Middle East, irrespective of its purported ties to the Saudi and Emirati regimes. Now, its collapsing relations with Turkey (after the YPG problem and the Zarrab case, the Jerusalem declaration was the straw that broke the camel’s back) means that any hope of putting any kind of regional pressure on Iran, military or otherwise, is totally out of reach.
Some reporters pointed to the absence of the Saudi King at the OIC meeting, tarring the whole enterprise and the conference proceedings with the old ‘dogs barking’ brush. Mahmoud Abbas spent the day before with King Salman, who, under Trumpist influence, tried to bully him into withdrawing from the conference. It’s a surprise Salman’s son (MbS) didn’t try to kidnap Abbas, to force him to do his bidding, as he did recently in the case of a number senior Saudi royals, and the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad el-Hariri. But Abbas left promptly and backed Erdoğan’s call.
This in fact forced Salman’s hand. He couldn’t as Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina) find himself at odds with the OIC decision, so he pre-empted it, by announcing his backing for the idea of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Abbas revelled in announcing this fact to the OIC conference. Some Arab reporters accused him of being undignified in – as it were – carrying Salman’s message for him. However, what Abbas in fact did was to highlight the impotence of the Saudi King before the determination of the other members of the OIC conference. It is a deep stain on the al-Saud that they didn’t attend, and yet still had to go along with the decisions of the conference.
What is worse for the Saudi King, is that Jordan’s King Abdulla, a long-time Saudi ally, took an independent line like Abbas. He also visited Salman prior to the OIC conference, was bullied just like Abbas, and wasn’t kidnapped by MbS. In his speech at the conference, Abdulla confirmed the Hashemite dynasty’s commitment to the protection of the Islamic Holy Places, and in doing so, upstaged the al-Saud. Abdulla’s Hashemite ancestors had traditionally been the guardians of the shrines in Mecca and Medina, only for the British to put the al-Saud in charge instead. Abdulla’s speech, quiet and balanced as it was, finally ripped apart the Islamic credentials of the Saudi upstarts.
So when a cat screeches… a bloody scratch follows