As the year 2023 commences, the Middle Eastern region has witnessed major developments and shifts. Rapprochement, realignment and rift among states have become the highlight of some of these transformational changes. States certainly seem willing to reevaluate and reassess their foreign relations.
It was no hidden secret that China, Iran and Russia – the three most sanctioned countries of the world were involved in an informal alliance of convenience, a posse of “Sorcerer’s Apprentices” which the West termed as the ‘Troika of Tyranny’ and ‘A Triad of Bullies.’ The tripartite appears to be ganging up on the US. The striking element is that a new and robust player has made an entry to the alliance – Saudi Arabia – a long standing ally to the West, displaying a paradigm shift in its foreign policy.
Consequently, the most significant of all Middle Eastern events has been the announcement of restoration of diplomatic ties between arch rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran after years of tension, hostility and proxy conflicts. The thawing of relations after an intense freeze of 7 years carries not only regional implications, but has raised alarms globally. The agreement, which calls for the reopening of the two nations’ embassies in each other’s capital cities, was reached at a meeting in China, from 6 to 10 March 2023 and made public in a joint statement.
As the famous saying goes on, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’ Thus, the deal is seen as a largely positive development for the region. Better relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may also have an influence on Syria’s civil conflict. The Bashar al-Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia, has long been opposed by Sunni organizations funded by the Saudi monarchy. What is important in this regard is that Arab countries have gotten closer to Assad in recent months, especially after the earthquake that ravaged both Syria and Turkey. The diplomatic agreement made in China may make relations between Riyadh and Assad more amenable, and would likely further entrench the autocrat’s power. This can be interpreted as bringing peace to Syria, and hence between some paucity to the proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The improved ties might have an impact on the security and stability of Lebanon and Iraq, where militias supported by Iran are operating.
What benefits do the Saudis yield from the agreement? The Saudi led campaign in Yemen, armed with US weaponry, against the Iranian backed Houthi rebels began in 2015 and since then has escalated resulting in a dire humanitarian crisis. The war has proven costly for Riyadh. Since the attack on its oil facilities in 2019, it was eager to withdraw itself from the protracted conflict and focus on its domestic issues. The news agency Iran Observer tweeted on 14 March that as per Yemeni officials, the Saudi-led war against Yemen has ended and an agreement has been reached on humanitarian issues, and the announcement pertaining to the extension of ceasefire would be announced soon. The next day the same source tweeted that Tehran and Riyadh exchanged views regarding OPEC and OPEC+ policies to ensure stability in the global oil markets, as per the Iranian oil minister.
Furthermore, the changing dynamics at global forum have shown a shift in MBS’ aggressive foreign policy, who has demonstrated that he can be more of a pragmatist when need be. He appears to be comprehending that he needs to diversify his foreign policy plays. He repaired relations with Qatar in 2021, following the 2017 blockade, deescalated the situation with Turkey in 2018 and pursued peace negotiations in Yemen, whereas Saudi Arabia and UAE relations have currently seen a shaky turn. MBS’ strategy for regional unification is influenced by the challenges he faces at home, as he works to alter almost every aspect of Saudi Arabian society.
The warming of ties between the Kingdom and Islamic Republic have shown that there is a clear rift between Washington and Riyadh and that ties have been shaky since President Biden came to power, over Jamal Khashoggi’s dismemberment and killing and over the matter of global oil supplies affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Why was China quick to intervene? 40% of China’s oil needs are met by imports from the Middle East, and as part of its well-known “Maritime Silk Road Initiative,” China needs access to ports on the east coast of Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, all of which are frequently roiled by regional unpredictability. For the protection of Chinese energy interests, peace in the region is a must.
Where is the United States of America in the equation? The warming of ties between the Kingdom and Islamic Republic have shown that there is a clear rift between Washington and Riyadh and that ties have been shaky since President Biden came to power, over Jamal Khashoggi’s dismemberment and killing and over the matter of global oil supplies affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The agreement is a clear indication to the US that it cannot take for granted the relationship with its Arab strategic partner, which has now flexed its muscles and demonstrated its ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. The glaring aspect is that unlike the United States, China has not taken sides, and has rather played the role of a neutral mediator. Moreover, it has not raised concerns with Saudis about its human rights record.
Perhaps politics abhors vacuum. The joining hands between antagonistic regional powerhouses highlights China’s expanding economic and political significance in the Middle East and what some observers claim is an indication of declining US hegemony. Analysts have pointed that the Kingdom kept the US informed, but not directly involved. The waning of US influence can be evaluated from the fact that as Saudi Arabia and Iran formally apply to join, the BRICS group of countries would decide this year whether to admit new members. Speculations of oil contracts denominated in Chinese yuan have resurfaced once again in international news. Furthermore, China is also planning to hold a GCC-Iran summit in Beijing this year, following its diplomatic success and thus strengthening its hold in Middle Eastern politics.
Normalization does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other. The two sides may not agree to solve their differences, but rather bridge them. Pessimists point out that this could just be a brief cessation of hostilities. The diplomatic interaction may not be able to resolve the deep-seated antagonism between the two countries because of irreconcilable differences in politics and religion.
How does it affect Israeli objectives and Iranian motives? The Biden administration has been increasing economic pressure on Iran and sending a message that military force is still an option if all other measures fail to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Politicians in Israel used the rapprochement between the Kingdom and Israel’s arch enemy as an opportunity to criticize Netanyahu, charging him with prioritizing his personal agenda over Israel’s foreign relations. Hence, there is speculation that the Saudi-Iran restoration of relations could entangle the Washington’s plans to contain the Iranian nuclear program. Already, the United Arab Emirates, which has normalized relations with Israel and has long been suspicious of Tehran, has sought to ease tensions with Iran.
Restoring relations with a regional rival would be a welcome relief for Iran, which has endured months of internal instability, punctuated by intense anti-government demonstrations that Iranian officials have largely attributed to Saudi Arabia’s influence. It’s expected that Saudi Arabia will rein back Iran International, a satellite station located in London that has gained popularity within Iran by supporting the demonstrators. The US’ grinning mouth fails to hide its teeth-grinding, as China’s actions undermine US plans to expand the so-called Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia. Fears have intensified partly because reports suggest that Saudi Arabia has also refused to issue entry visas to an Israeli delegation that was slated to take part in a UN sponsored tourism event.
Are things really as simple as they appear to be? Though normalization may have several effects, but the biggest difficulty lies in making tangible progress. Normalization does not necessarily mean that the two sides trust each other. The two sides may not agree to solve their differences, but rather bridge them. Pessimists point out that this could just be a brief cessation of hostilities. The diplomatic interaction may not be able to resolve the deep-seated antagonism between the two countries because of irreconcilable differences in politics and religion. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been vying for regional dominance for decades, each considering itself to be a leader for 1.9 billion Muslims throughout the world, as well as a regional power.
Several questions have been raised. Would Iran accommodate the Saudis in terms of reducing their proxy interference in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen? Iran’s support for the Houthis has allowed it to dramatically increase its influence in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Will Iran relent in using this important weapon in its arsenal? Would Iran opt for a different approach and completely give up the concept of spreading the seeds of the Islamic Revolution as a transnational mission?
Will Saudi Arabia abandon Israeli Check Point Software Technologies that is set to provide “cyber security solutions” along with billion dollars of investments to its mega NEOM City project? Similarly, the renewed relationship does not completely alleviate Saudi Arabia’s concerns over the regime’s continuous development of its nuclear weapons. The Kingdom won’t be too quick in abandoning its relationship with Washington. The warming of Saudi-Iranian ties may be a warning to the States, which it definitely is not going to take lightly.
There is no doubt that the forging of the ties would yield positive benefits over and beyond the Middle East. It may be viewed as at least a partial thaw in a regional Cold War that has long shaped the Middle East. This development ought to be viewed therefore, not as a strategic breakthrough, but rather a tactical move. It is too soon to reach any substantive conclusions considering the ever-changing nature of regional politics in the Middle East since a lot of stakes are involved for all of the parties involved.