The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers, has been one of the most significant sources of tension in the Middle East. Both countries have engaged in a wide range of opposing activities across the region. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim monarchy, and Iran, a Shia Muslim republic, has accused each other of spreading its ideology and destabilising the region through its support for different groups in the Middle East.
In April 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia held their first direct talks since cutting off official ties in 2016, with Baghdad as the host. Between April and September 2022, four rounds of talks were held, with the mediation of Iraq and Oman in most of the cases. After a fifth round of talks, the reopen calling of Saudi and Iranian embassies has been proposed by a top adviser to Khamenei.
You Can Also Read: POWERPLAY IN THE MIDDLE-EAST: LOOKING BEYOND THE LENS OF WESTERN WORLD
The joint statement issued by the two countries emphasized their commitment to respecting the sovereignty of states and refraining from interfering in their internal affairs. This language appears to address Saudi Arabia’s apprehension about Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is responsible for managing Shia militia proxies in the region. The Revolutionary Guard has been a source of tension between the two countries, with Saudi Arabia and the United States accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and contributing to instability in the region.
The announcement of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries comes as a surprise, given the longstanding animosity between them. This restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have significant implications for the region’s on-going conflicts. Though it is unclear how the two countries will work together, the decision to reopen embassies and re-establish trade and security relations is a significant step forward.
Events of tension between the two middle-east powers
One of the most significant events in Iran-Saudi Arabia’s adversarial history was the Arab Spring in 2011. At this time, the world experienced protest movements in opposition to the status quo among the nations of the Middle East. Iran was blamed by Saudi Arabia at that moment for helping Bahrain carry out protests against the royal family. Later, Saudi Arabia sent more than one thousand soldiers to pull the leash off the protest. But Iran denied the accusation, and as a result, tensions between the two countries escalated.
Another major event that further intensified the rivalry was the Syrian war that broke out in 2011. Iran backed President Bashar al-Assad and provided him with military forces and financial support to battle Sunni rebels. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, backed the rebel groups but later joined a US-led coalition formed to fight ISIL (ISIS) in 2014. The Syrian conflict deepened the sectarian divide between the two nations, with Iran championing Shia interests and Saudi Arabia supporting Sunni causes.
This rivalry has also played out in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading a military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels from 2015. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and created what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This further strained the already-tense relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Historic theocratic rivalry
The Shia-Sunni divide has been a driving force behind the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While there have been attempts at reconciliation, their adversarial history has left deep scars and continues to impact regional stability.
This adversarial history between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also fuelled sectarian tensions across the Middle East, with both countries using their religious influence to support their respective allies. The rivalry has not only impacted the region’s stability but also affected global oil prices, given that Iran and Saudi Arabia are major oil-producing countries.
The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran was further exacerbated by a stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage at Mecca in 2015, where about 2,000 pilgrims were killed, including more than 400 Iranians. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of mismanaging the event, leading to more tension between the two countries.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, which led to protesters in Tehran storming the Saudi embassy. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned of “divine vengeance” for Nimr’s execution, and Riyadh then cut ties with Tehran. That same year, Iran suspended its participation in the Hajj, and Saudi Arabia launched a Persian-language television station covering the pilgrimage, which Khamenei criticised.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and being too close to Iran. This move led to a regional rupture that was later repaired in January 2021.
When Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in 2020, official Saudi media celebrated the attack. Which angered Iran further.
China, the matchmaker
China has historically maintained close ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and as a result, it played a significant role in mediating peace between the two countries. However, it is important to note that China has traditionally preferred to take a neutral stance when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East, and has generally refrained from getting involved in regional disputes.
As two of the most influential countries in the Middle East, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has significant implications for regional stability and global oil markets. China has economic interests in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, which could provide an incentive for it to help mediate a peace deal. China is a major importer of oil from both countries, and has invested heavily in infrastructure and other projects in the region. A resolution to the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia could potentially create a more stable environment for Chinese businesses operating in the region.
In 2019, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China was ready to play a constructive role in promoting dialogue and easing tensions between the two countries. He also urged Iran and Saudi Arabia to exercise restraint and seek peaceful solutions to their differences.
In February 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China to meet with President Xi Jinping. The following month, Riyadh and Tehran announced that they had decided to re-establish ties, marking a significant milestone in their relationship.
What does the US says?
The announcement has been cautiously welcomed by the United States, as, according to the BBC, the country has been trying to broker a peace deal between the two countries. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the administration supported “any effort in mitigating tensions in these two regions.” However, he added, “it is now a point to be judged whether Iran is going to meet the obligations or not.”
The United Nations has also welcomed the announcement, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres thanking China for brokering the deal. A spokesman for the secretary-general said that Guterres was ready to help efforts to establish long-lasting peace and security in the region of Gulf.”
However, Israel, which has been a vocal opponent of Iran’s nuclear program, has not yet commented on the announcement. The country has called for maximum pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and has threatened military action against the country if necessary.