Iran, Saudi Arabia And The Future Of The Middle East

Iran, Saudi Arabia And The Future Of The Middle East
International politics and foreign policy are always evolving. The recent development of Saudi Arabia and Iran re-engaging diplomatically, with China being the mediator, shows how fluid the situation can be at the international level.

Iran and Saudi Arabia closed their diplomatic channels after the execution of a Shia cleric and opposition figure Ayatollah Sheikh Baqir al-Nimr of Saudi Arabia in 2016, and both have been fighting and engaging militarily and politically at different levels, regional and international, to overcome each other for their political and religious difference.

This difference, competition and engagement has resulted in Shia-Sunni conflict in the region and has also paved the way for external actors like the US and European countries to play their part for their regional interests such as resources, economic benefits and upholding their core strategic goals – i.e. protecting Israeli interests and keeping Chinese influence in the region at bay.

For decades, the US has supported Israel by providing military and financial assistance. But, more importantly, it has worked to give the Israeli state legitimacy and acceptance from Arab and Muslim states - who had not just opposed but fought Israel since its creation. This struggle for their willing support will not end until Israel is recognised by the majority of Muslim states. Naturally, the aim of the recent Abraham Accords was also the pursuit of the same policy: i.e. to obtain legitimacy for Israel.

Through the Abraham Accords, the American hope was for Muslim states to establishing diplomatic relationships with Israel to remove the long-hanging ‘illegitimate state’ and 'occupier’ tags on the Israeli state. To some extent, it was indeed achieved – as some key GCC players have accepted Israel and established diplomatic ties along with trade. The same forces were also used to contain China’s influence in the region.

The Middle East also plays a major role for China’s future. As such, China has been able to exploit the US involvement in the Middle East to further its own strategic agenda and make key allies in the region – i.e. the sort of thing that rising powers always do.

China has a good relationship with Iran. And via Iran, it becomes a friend for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other states that are relatively speaking aligned with Iran But, China has also been actively engaged with those states which are allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – with the goal of creating a favourable atmosphere in the Middle East for Chinese geo-economic projects.

This policy has borne fruit for Beijing, and the current re-engagement of Iran and Saudi Arabia is a key product of the process. Renewed engagement between these two countries will be the biggest setback to US interests and an unqualified gain for China.

The decision, if we see it from Saudi Arabia's perspective, is no doubt somewhat influenced by the Chinese but is predominantly driven by Saudi interests and security concerns.

Saudi Arabia has faced direct attacks on its oil and key military facilities from Yemen's Ansarullah, in retaliation for Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen. Ansarullah is getting stronger by each passing day, leaving the Saudis with no option but to go for peace talks with Iran – which is allegedly a strategic handler of Ansarullah. The security gains from overcoming the threat of Ansarullah will provide space for key reforms that Prince Muhammad bin Salman is bringing in for the last few years. Saudi Arabia needs peace with Iran to further its reformist policies, as Riyadh sees itself as a key player in the international arena and needs to diversify its economy. This could be jeopardised if the situation with Iran and Yemen continues as it has in the past few years.

Similarly, Iran has its interests leading towards a mending of ties with Saudi Arabia. For Tehran, having friendly states in the Middle East means less worry while confronting the US policies aimed at containing Iran. Already, Iran mended ties with Qatar when Saudi Arabia and Qatar were mired in tensions. In fact, when General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated, it was speculated in some quarters that he was aiming to meet officials of the Iraqi government as intermediaries to convey a message of de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Iran has long professed a desire to dial down sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims – and so, for instance, Ali Khamenei back in 2016 issued a fatwa that indicated as much. And even Ayatollah Khomeini had stated, “We Muslims are busy bickering over whether to fold or unfold our arms during prayer, while the enemy is devising ways to cut them off.”

Experience since then has only underscored the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia need functional ties with each other to strengthen their positions, both economically and politically.

For China, this is a win-win situation as it will help its $400-billion economic projects with Iran go smoothly and the influence of the US in the region will be replaced.

However, any slight miscalculation or miscommunication between these states – whether inadvertent or caused by powers with vested interests that are opposed to the rapprochement – will again lead to intense division and conflict in the region.

Both Riyadh and Tehran will have to watch out for such spoilers, if they are to bring the current project to fruition and reap strategic benefits from it.

The author studies International Relations at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. His focus is on proxy wars, conflicts and aspirations for hegemony by international and regional powers in the Middle East region. Contact: