Security Watch: Can Riyadh and Tehran Achieve a Lasting Détente?

Kareem Salem

Source: Oleksii Liskonih

On March 10, 2016 Iran and Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic relations. This dynamic was a combination of geopolitical and domestic political factors. In geopolitical terms, the 2011 Syrian civil war was the epicentre of this rivalry, with Iranian support for the government of Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and Saudi support for local terrorist groups on the other. Regarding internal developments in both countries, the attack on the Saudi embassy by Iranian demonstrators protesting against the Saudi monarchy’s execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr on January 3, 2016, prompted the Saudi kingdom to close its diplomatic mission in Tehran. 

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been a constant in the Middle East’s geopolitics for half a century. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the catalyst for this competition. The establishment of an Iranian theocracy prompted the new rulers to export their revolutionary ideology through religious figures trained in Iran and through arming Shiite militias in the region, starting with the Iraqi militias during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In parallel, the Islamic Republic anchored its radical groups in Lebanon, notably Hezbollah from 1982, and in Yemen, the Houthists, an insurrectionary movement that emerged in the north-west of Sana’a during the 1980s and 1990s. Hezbollah’s formation has, above all, enabled the Islamic Republic to rise to the rank of a major regional player and, by so doing, to become an indirect player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While this rivalry is primarily political, it also has a religious component. Both countries are Islamic (Islam is the state religion), yet each claims to follow two different currents of Islam: Shi’ism in the case of Iran and Sunnism in the case of Saudi Arabia. This schism within Islam emerged after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, was designated as the legitimate heir by the Shiites because he came from the Prophet’s family. For Sunnis, the transmission of power is linked to the ability to lead. Saudi Arabia, stemming from the Wahhabi branch of Sunnism; considers the Shiites to be the main perpetrators behind the split in Islam. The kingdom also refers to the Hajj pilgrimage and its sovereignty over Medina and Mecca, the holy places of Islam, as examples of its legitimacy as the exclusive representative of the Muslim world.

Over the last two decades, unprecedented geopolitical upheavals have enabled the Islamic Republic to strengthen its influence in the region. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime by the United States in 2003 saw a Shiite majority come to power in Iraq for the first time since the dawn of Islam. Added to this context were the “33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006”, the “Pearl Spring” in Manama, Bahrain, and the Iranian regime’s support for the current Syrian regime; Iran’s recurrent military support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip; the Pasdaran’s military support and training for the Houthi militia in Yemen, resulting in regular missile strikes on Saudi soil between 2015 and 2023, including an oil facility belonging to the Saudi company Aramco in Jeddah.

The combination of all these factors makes the recent thaw between the two countries a remarkable and unexpected event. Above all, it is a victory for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While discreet contacts between Riyadh and Tehran had been underway for two years by way of Iraq and Oman, the reconciliation between the regional adversaries is above all an undeniable success for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Since the disengagement of the United States from Iraq, the People’s Republic has become a key player in the diplomatic and geoeconomic spheres, particularly thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. The objective of this project is to leverage Chinese economic development projects across regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. To achieve this, China needs to stablise relations between Riyadh and Tehran.

Riyadh sees the PRC as a means of obtaining security guarantees that it considers insufficient from the Americans. The easing of relations with Iran is also enabling the Saudi kingdom to refocus its efforts on developing its economic transition, notably through the “Vision 2030” promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As for the Islamic Republic, by supporting Beijing’s diplomatic initiative, it is weakening the anti-Iranian front led by the Americans and strengthening its sovereignty over Israel by hampering its attempts to normalise relations with the Saudi kingdom. This rapprochement also makes a large dent in the isolation in which the Islamic Republic has been held by the United States and, to a lesser degree, the Europeans, since former US President Donald Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. With increased trade with China and the promise of Saudi investment, the country’s economy could receive a much-needed boost.

The consequences of this normalisation are beginning to become clearer in the region. The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran has enabled the Houthis and the al-Assad regime to re-establish communication with the Saudi kingdom. In particular, this has resulted in the restoration of air transport between Riyadh and Sanaa. But it is in Syria that the political effect is most marked, with the re-establishment of diplomatic representation between Damascus and Riyadh and Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League. Health reasons are also contributing to this rapprochement. The civil war has turned Syria into a narco-state. The government produces Captagon, an amphetamine-based synthetic drug that is exported worldwide and is particularly popular in the Gulf States. For the Syrian regime, it is a way of making money, but also of putting pressure on its neighbours to obtain advantages in exchange for halting the production or distribution of the drug. For this reason, the Saudi kingdom has since agreed to reopen the way to economic cooperation and resume commercial investments in Syria.

The normalisation of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is therefore a significant event for the Middle East. It is a recognition by the two regional powers that force, whether direct or indirect, has not worked. It should be noted that a week after the tripartite agreement, the Iranian chief negotiator of the agreement, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, visited the United Arab Emirates, leading a delegation of officials involved in security and finance issues. It is worth noting that Ali Shamkhani comes from Iran’s Arab minority and has a perfect command of Arabic, a way for Tehran to show its neighbours that the idea of a radical opposition between the Persian and Arab worlds is unfounded.

Improving dialogue with the Iranian regime is of great importance to the Saudi kingdom, which aspires to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to which Iran is fully affiliated. This organisation aims to promote political, economic, and security cooperation between its members. For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, this is a way of accelerating and expanding the number of Chinese investors in the Kingdom, in order to support the economic transition set out in “Vision 2030”.

With time, significant progress could be made towards peace and stability in the Arabian Peninsula. Progress in Yemen and Syria could help resolve the institutional crisis in Lebanon. Since the end of Michel Aoun’s mandate in October 2022, the Presidency of the State has remained vacant, owing to a lack of consensus. Until now, the candidacy of Sleiman Frangié, backed by Hezbollah, has come up against Saudi opposition, but the current impasse could be overcome by Iranian-Saudi cooperation in developing a comprehensive agreement on the distribution of key state posts and on a government programme, which would enable Lebanon to benefit from financial aid from the Gulf States. Trends that are likely to be observed over the short and medium term.

Suggested Readings:

Farouk, Yasmine. “Riyadh’s Motivations Behind the Saudi-Iran Deal”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30 March, 2023.

 Mubarak, Hussein. “Saudi Arabia and Iran Restore Relations: A Victory of Necessity”. Wilson Center, 5 June, 2023.

Williams, Stephanie. “Can the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement help address Lebanon’s governance crisis?” Brookings, May 2023.

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Security Watch: Can Riyad…

by Kareem Salem time to read: 5 min