In the Middle East, the icy relationship between two arch-rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has finally thawed with the help of a mediator. After more than half a decade of strained relations, the two countries are now re-establishing diplomatic ties. The announcement of the re-establishment of relations, with China’s mediation, could change the dynamics of the Middle East. What might we expect to see in the region as a result in the days ahead? Writes MOHAMMAD RAFIUL HASSAN
International politics cannot be fully understood without considering the importance of the Middle East, given its significance as a region characterized by conflict and volatility. The crisis in the Middle East has been a topic of discussion for decades, and the United States and its allies have played a significant role in shaping the region’s political landscape. After the discovery of oil fields in Saudi Arabia in 1932, the United States turned its attention to the Middle East, positioning itself as a provider of modern technology in the oil fields. However, the US and its capitalist allies have never wanted to see a united Middle East, and have actively worked to prevent the resolution of major Middle East-based crises.
One of the key reasons for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East is the lack of positive relationships among Muslim states in the region and the Gulf. Additionally, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a major contributor to the current state of chaos and instability in the Middle East. The two countries have competing interests and differences rooted in religion and sect, which have led to direct and indirect proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.
You can also read: PM Hasina to Foster Global Cooperation in Qatar Economic Forum 2023
However, due to national interest, a rival state can suddenly become an important friend. This is what we see in a significant development in March 2023, where China brokered a historic agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties after seven years of severance. This was followed by negotiations and meetings initiated by Iraq and Oman. According to the agreement, both countries will open their embassies within two months and take steps to implement the security and economic cooperation agreement signed between them 20 years ago. Many now expect the situation in the Middle East may change with the announcement of the restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The successful mediation of China in this agreement is seen as a major achievement in international diplomacy. But how China was able to bring these two rival Middle Eastern states to the negotiating table is a question. To better comprehend why and how it was possible, a bit of history is instructive.
SAUDI-IRAN RELATIONS: A HISTORY OF UPS AND DOWNS
The Safavid dynasty, during the 16th and 17th centuries, gradually converted Sunni Iran into a stronghold of Shia Islam. In the 18th century, the House of Saud adopted the ultraconservative Sunni Wahabiyya doctrine. Some experts view these two events as the beginning of the sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Cold War Politics and Cooperation:
During the Cold War, the United States sought the support of regional powers in the Middle East to counter Soviet influence and secure oil exports from the Gulf region. As part of its “twin pillar” strategy for regional security, the US aligned with Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty and Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and 70s, and the two nations collaborated closely.
However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran brought about a nationalist fervour that changed the equation dramatically. Saudi Arabia saw Iran’s new government as both an ideological and political rival, particularly as its influence inspired nations across the region. To counter Iran’s revolutionary appeal and prevent potential instability, Saudi Arabia poured petro-dollars into Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran throughout the 1980s. This helped polarize the region along sectarian lines, which was further exacerbated by the export of Saudi Arabia’s official Salafism through televangelists and TV channels. Ayatollah Khomeini called for the overthrow of American-backed Arab rulers and sought to export revolutionary activity under the banner of an “uprising of all Muslims” guided by his leadership. The outbreak of protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, home to the majority of its Shia population and oil reserves, also alarmed Riyadh. The government launched a brutal crackdown that resulted in civilian deaths, while the clerical establishment published anti-Shia literature portraying the protests as a Shia conspiracy. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to improve. Saudi Arabia sent aid to Iran following a devastating earthquake in the city of Manjil in 1990, and the two nations resumed diplomatic relations in 1991.
Following the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, Iranian-Saudi relations entered a new phase. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected in 2005, Iran quickly used its links to anti-Baathist opposition groups to establish a strong presence in a weakened and fragmented Iraq. Tehran sought to curb US influence on its western border and shape Iraqi affairs. However, Saudi Arabia viewed Iran’s growing influence in Iraq as a significant threat and urged the US to remain engaged in the region.
The Arab Spring:
A few years later, the outbreak of the Arab Spring intensified the hostility between the two countries again. Each country sought to shape the outcomes of the Arab uprisings to favour their interests and adopted seemingly contradictory policies. For instance, Iran supported the protests in Bahrain but sent military support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia did the opposite. It dispatched its army to Bahrain but backed the armed opposition in Syria. They have also backed opposite sides in wars in Yemen. Saudi Arabia launched a war against the Houthis in 2015, declaring them an Iranian proxy, but it engaged with the group after Saudi-backed Yemeni president Saleh’s overthrow, attempting to influence Yemen’s political transition. Iran, on the other hand, approached leftist forces and separatists in the south to expand its influence in Yemen. Meanwhile, in other Arab countries, Iran emphasised its commitment to the Palestinian cause and opposition to Western domination to gain support from ordinary Arabs.
Both countries also used sectarian rhetoric and allegiances to complement their military force deployment in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Although the conflicts in these three countries can be interpreted as a Sunni-Shia rivalry, the reality is much more complex.
Could Reconciliation be Achieved Amid Tension:
The Arab Spring and the escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have had domestic repercussions in both countries. Protests broke out in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, while Iran experienced unrest among ethnic minorities in Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchestan provinces and among disaffected youth and citizens in major cities. Both governments have accused each other of stoking unrest in their respective countries.
Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were severed by Riyadh in 2016 after protesters stormed its embassy in Tehran. This followed the execution of 81 Shia Muslims, including a prominent Shia leader, by Saudi Arabia. Tensions escalated further when Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the 2019 attacks on its oil facilities.
Despite the ongoing animosity, there remained a slight possibility for improvement in the situation, as the dynamics of Iranian-Saudi relations have largely been shaped by the interference of external actors, such as US and China. The new administration in Washington could potentially play a positive role in easing tensions. Nevertheless, China seized the opportunity and recognized that some form of cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia could serve its regional interests.
Balancing the competing interests of Riyadh and Tehran is a challenging task, but it is crucial to understand the dynamics of their rivalry. Despite religion having a role, the conflict is mainly about politics and regional security rather than “ancient hatreds”. That is why, peace – or at least some degree of normalised relations – was quite possible.
INITIATIVES TO CURB SECTARIANISM
As early as 1993, Saudi King Fahd promised to improve the situation of Shia dissidents by meeting with them and announcing measures to placate them, including the removal of derogatory references to them in textbooks and allowing Saudi Shias in exile to return home. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Saudi attempts to reach out to the Shias were accelerated.
After Saddam’s fall in 2003, a Shia delegation presented a petition for equal rights titled “Partners in the Nation” to Crown Prince Abdullah, who called for a better Shia-Sunni understanding. Abdullah invited prominent Shias to a national dialogue to discuss ways to combat religious extremism, and Shias turned out to vote in large numbers when elections were held for the Qatif council in the Shia-majority and oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Many Shias were elected to the council, giving them a platform to voice their concerns.
Under King Abdullah’s rule, the Saudi government allowed the publication of 40 works on Shia family law in 2005, including those by al-Saffar, who headed a transnational Shia network in Saudi Arabia and led an uprising against the kingdom in 1979.
In 2020, Saudi Arabia’s announcement to end assistance offered to mosques globally, which had proliferated as part of attempts to check the Iranian revolutionary influence, was an important step towards checking destabilizing sectarianism.
As part of the reconciliation, Saudi Shias were also allowed to build a larger place to commemorate Imam Hussain, the third Shia Imam, and to cater to Shia pilgrims in Medina. These measures helped build confidence and counter the damage caused by state-sponsored sectarianism aimed at preventing Iran from exporting Khomeini’s revolution.
SECTARIANISM AND IDEOLOGY- A SHORT ANALYSIS OF THE RIVALS
There is a tendency among analysts to oversimplify the political conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia as being solely driven by sectarianism or Shi’a-Sunni tensions. This narrow view fails to account for the complex and deeply rooted political differences between the two states that have shaped their outlook and actions in the Middle East. Reducing the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia to sectarianism would lead to flawed conclusions.
It is important to note that the line between Sunni and Shia Islam has been historically and theologically blurred at times and has not always been a source of division. Therefore, a more nuanced understanding of the sectarian differences in both countries can only be achieved by delving into the historical context and investigating the ideological and political differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The 1979 Revolution brought about a significant transformation in Iran, as the Khomeini regime shifted the country from a secular state to a fundamentalist theocracy. This led to increased sectarian differences in the region, and it’s important to note that the regime prioritized being an Islamic Revolution over being an Islamic Republic. The state was viewed as a tool to support and perfect the revolution, which resulted in Iran seeking to export its revolutionary ideology and establish Iranian hegemony across the Islamic world. This approach has led some, like American diplomat Henry Kissinger, to question whether Iran desires to be a nation or a cause.
Given its anti-monarchical stance, Iran’s foreign policy aims to instigate unrest and topple Arab Gulf monarchies. The Khomeini regime’s message sparked an Islamic uprising across the Arabian Peninsula. Khomeini’s call for the abolition of the House of Saud added to the Saudi leadership’s fear of suffering the same fate as the shah in Iran. However, Iran’s primary focus has been on challenging and undermining Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has responded to these threats in various ways.
The Saudi regime, on the other hand, differs from Iran’s theocratic regime as it is a monarchy with a hybrid structure that is not entirely secular or religious. In response to threats, Saudi Arabia aggressively reinforced Islamist fundamentalism to debunk Khomeini’s vision of Islam, emphasizing its Shia identity. This reactionary response to the Iranian Revolution was later acknowledged as a mistake by the current Saudi leadership. In fact, the Saudi movement toward sectarianism was a reactionary response to the challenges posed by the rise of the 1979 revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran. However, as sectarianism began to clash with Saudi Arabia’s vision for development and progress under its 2030 Vision, the country shifted towards embracing Saudi nationalism instead. On the other hand, sectarianism remains a central element of the Khomeini regime, highlighted in its constitution as a means of promoting its own geopolitical ambitions.
Despite their differences, both Iran and Saudi Arabia share similar goals of seeking regional influence and internal stability, with both having weak spots based on religious/ethnic minorities in their oil-rich provinces. Throughout history, Iran and Saudi Arabia have experienced moments of positive collaboration when their interests have not directly clashed. With the recent agreement reached between the two countries, we may witness some more positive changes in the near future. It remains to be seen what specific changes will occur.
THE DEAL AND A NEW EQUATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
We may look at some of the critical situations in the Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a proxy war; what potential outcomes could arise as a result of this agreement?
The conflict in Yemen has been a significant source of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the former leading a coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew the internationally recognized government in 2015. The Houthis have also been accused of attacking Saudi Arabia. However, the recent Saudi-Iran pact is expected to de-escalate hostilities and help end the war in Yemen. Tehran is anticipated to pressure the Houthis to sign a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, and the group has already welcomed the resumption of ties between the two countries. This development marks an important shift away from sectarianism in the Middle East.
The Syrian conflict that started in 2011 intensified the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While Iran provided financial and military aid to President Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia supported the rebels fighting against him. However, as Iran’s support played a crucial role in keeping al-Assad in power while Saudi Arabia’s support for the rebels dwindled, the Saudi authorities sought to restore relations with Syria. With the signing of the Saudi-Iran pact, there is an expectation that the relationship between Syria and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, will improve, and negotiations may pave the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League.
In recent years, Lebanon’s political landscape has been characterized by a sharp divide between a pro-Iranian coalition led by the powerful armed group Hezbollah and a pro-Saudi coalition. The country is currently mired in an unprecedented political crisis, having been without a president for several months. A caretaker government with limited powers is currently governing the country. The ongoing efforts to restore diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh have sparked renewed optimism that the political stalemate in Lebanon could come to an end.
Since the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has increased its political, security, and economic influence in Iraq, causing concern for Saudi Arabia. The 2019 drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which used Iraqi airspace, only heightened tensions between the two countries. However, with the recent Saudi-Iran deal, Iraq sees an opportunity to move forward and build a stable future by collaborating with a common regional power instead of depending on the US, Arab Gulf states, or Iran. This development has been welcomed in Baghdad as a way to “turn the page” and work towards a more secure and prosperous future.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is advancing, with one of its key goals being to secure access to a variety of energy resources and the financial backing of countries with strained relations with the West. However, China’s multilayered balancing policy prevents it from using diplomatic tools to mediate disputes between regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran or Pakistan and India, or establish contacts. Nonetheless, China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, launched in 2013 to promote trade and commerce from Southeast Asia to Europe and expand political influence, has enhanced China’s political clout in the Middle East. This agreement, which is viewed by some as a response to the US’s unsuccessful foreign policy in the region, has the potential to not only boost China’s influence but also help resolve several issues, including the Israel-Palestine conflict and the wars in Syria and Yemen, if successful.
The Gulf waters, which are crucial for transporting most of the world’s oil, have been a site of conflict between Iran and the West. In 2019, there were several attacks on tankers in these waters after the US, under former President Donald Trump, withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed fresh sanctions. Additionally, Iran and Israel have accused each other of attacking their ships in recent years. The newly signed pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia is expected to reduce conflicts in the Gulf waters.
Reducing conflicts and improving peace in the area through collaboration between Iran and Saudi Arabia could result in a decrease in oil rates. Conversely, if Iran increases oil exports to China despite global sanctions, this could raise demand and lead to an increase in oil prices.
In addition, OPEC countries have set production targets that are difficult to meet, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to court Russia, their major buyer, in the OPEC+ group. These factors may result in stagnant oil prices. Therefore, experts predict that the recent agreement will improve energy security in the Persian Gulf region and that may lead to an influx of investment opportunities.
BUT THE DEAL COMPLICATES MATTERS FOR ISRAEL!
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been long-time rivals in the Middle East, with both sides unwilling to make concessions in regional politics. The tension between them has allowed Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, to benefit. However, the recent agreement brokered by China to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has created concern for Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has always viewed Iran as a threat, and Netanyahu fears that this new relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia could disrupt his cooperative relations with Arab countries aimed at preventing Iranian influence.
The agreement has also created internal political tension within Israel and is seen as a symbolic failure for Netanyahu. Yoel Guzansky, a Persian Gulf expert at the Israeli think tank Institute for National Security, believes that it is a major setback for Israel’s efforts to build an anti-Iranian alliance in the region over the past few years. This diplomatic victory for Iran is bad news for Israel.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has also noted the impact of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Israel’s position in the Middle East. He believes that the agreement, mediated by China, will change the strategic equation in the region and make it difficult for Israel to pressure Iran as it has in the past. Kissinger suggests that if Israel wants to continue pressuring Iran, it will have to consider China’s interests in the region.
A SETBACK FOR USA?
The role of China as a peace broker in the Middle East, an area where the US has traditionally held significant influence, has made Washington officials uncomfortable. According to Henry Kissinger, China has increasingly asserted its role in shaping a new world order, as evidenced by its successful brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement
However, international analyst Karen Kwiatkowski has noted that the US may resist the agreement and even try to sabotage it, as a stable Middle East could impact the lucrative US arms trade and its singular influence in the region. Moreover, China’s involvement in the deal has raised questions about Beijing’s intentions and further complicated the US pivot to the Indo-Pacific as its main area of focus.
On the other hand, the US has described the normalization deal brokered by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran as positive, despite concerns about the message it may send regarding waning US influence in the region. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict, and curb destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing.” However, according to Gerald Feierstein, a senior fellow on US diplomacy at the Middle East Institute think tank, the Chinese involvement in the deal may have been overstated, as talks had already taken place in Iraq and Oman. He added that the US’s absence from the three-way handshake in Beijing is not significant, as the US does not have relations with Tehran. Feierstein also emphasized that the detente is not a Saudi Arabian slight to the US, but rather a reassertion of the kingdom’s strategic approach of not taking sides in great power competition. He noted that Saudi Arabia also provided aid to Ukraine and signed a $37bn deal with US aircraft company Boeing, which the White House praised.
The diplomatic normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a significant achievement and reflects a new power order emerging in the Middle East. As the US seeks to reduce its presence in the region and focus on Asia, China’s strategic and diplomatic move into the Middle East has added another layer of complexity to the global competition between the two superpowers.
In conclusion, the recent diplomatic agreement has the potential to bring peace to conflict-ridden countries like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The announcement may offer some relief to these countries, which have been caught in the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This development signals China’s increasing influence in the Arab Gulf region, as the US influence wanes. It is undoubtedly the most significant change in Middle East diplomacy in recent years. If diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are restored, it could create a new configuration of geopolitical relations in the Gulf region. The hope is that this agreement will contribute to reducing tensions in the region, promoting human rights, and improving security. Therefore, the world views this agreement as having a positive impact not only on the two countries involved but also on the region as a whole, with the potential to bring much-needed peace and stability.