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On March 6, 2023, representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing; four days later, Riyadh and Tehran declared their decision to normalise relations.
Saudi Arabia and Iran share a troubled history. Aspirations for regional leadership, oil export policies, and relations with the United States and other Western nations are only a few geopolitical issues among several others that have strained the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have intensified their rivalry in every aspect of the regional conflict, from taking opposing sides in the civil wars in Yemen and Syria to their affiliations with international alliances. Religion also plays an important role in defining the geopolitical contrasts between the two powers: Saudi Arabia presents itself as the champion of Sunni religiosity, while the ambitious Iran has made the Shiite revolution its banner and attempts to use the Shiite cells scattered throughout the Middle East to expand its influence over the region.
Given the ongoing cold war between the two regional powers, this historic agreement comes as a real surprise. By realigning the region’s major powers, the accord has the potential to de-escalate the simmering conflicts throughout the Middle East by eclipsing the current gap between Iran and the Arab world with a complex network of connections.
The reconciliation takes place as Iran experiences growing isolation on the international scene and Saudi Arabia shifts the focus of its foreign policy from hostility to negotiation. Saudi Arabia and its neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, have made efforts lately to patch things up with the majority of their opponents in the area, including Israel.
As stated by the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia, the two countries agreed to resume diplomatic relations, reopen the embassies, and honour their commitment to respect the sovereignty of states and non-interference in internal affairs. They also agreed to implement the Security Cooperation Agreement and the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth. Additionally, “the three countries expressed their keenness to exert all efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security,” the statement said.
The diplomatic and geopolitical consequences of the agreement ricocheting on the regional and international level include, on the one hand, impacting the web of relations in the Middle East and possibly alleviating tensions in multiple ongoing conflicts. On the other hand, China’s hosting of the meeting provides the grand scenario for this turning point, weaving the region into China’s global ambitions and giving Beijing a great leap forward in its rivalry with Washington.
On the regional level, the dispute between Riyadh and Iran has had a particularly negative impact on Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen in 2015 to battle the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who had taken control of the country after the two countries supported opposing sides in the Yemeni civil war that began in 2014. The Iranian mission to the United Nations has recently stated that the reconciliation “would accelerate the ceasefire, help start a national dialogue, and form an inclusive national government in Yemen,” Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported.
Additionally, Syria’s importance cannot be underestimated. The Syrian civil war front is crucial to understanding the delicate power dynamics and alliances in the area: the regime received support from Russia, China, Iran, and Hizbollah, the largest Lebanese Shiite paramilitary organisation, while the anti-regime opposition saw the U.S., the European Union, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and several Arab states among its supporters. Asad’s Syria is geographically and strategically crucial, as it acts as a territorial bridge and allows Iran to transit arms and aid to Hizbollah, which has always been committed to rebalancing the struggle for power with Israel.
The arrangement was first met with opposition by Benjamin Netanyahu‘s new administration in Israel. Despite efforts from Israel and Saudi Arabia to reconcile and create a new delicate chessboard of diplomatic ties, a wider opening between the two is unlikely to occur without significant advancement on the Palestinian front, which seems unachievable given the stance of the current Israeli administration. The Abraham Accords allowed Israel to sit a little more comfortably in the powder keg that is the Arab Middle East. Nothing would please Netanyahu more than a larger normalisation that covers Saudi Arabia; hence, Riyadh could exert significant diplomatic pressure on Israel about the Palestinian issue.
But these agreements are yet to address the elephant in the room: Saudi Arabia, along with many other regional and foreign nations, is gravely worried about Iran’s nuclear program. The P5+1 discussions (including the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France, together with Germany) have long served as the primary platform for engaging Iran in diplomatic endeavours; however, they did not incorporate important Middle Eastern nations. The Saudi-Iranian negotiations, which were mediated by Beijing, may provide a small window of opportunity. Yet, in order for these bilateral discussions to be substantive and significant, they must address regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program; otherwise, the openness will be purely symbolic.
On the international level, the fact that this historic reconciliation was brokered by China vaults it into a new league diplomatically and leaves Washington on the sidelines. The relations between the USA and Saudi Arabia have been a bit turbulent lately, consequently to Riyadh’s will to break free of Washington’s hold. Saudi Arabia views itself as a regional power capable of participating independently in global affairs rather than as the United States’ security vassal. On the other hand, Iran has managed to maintain close ties with Russia and now China. Hampered by sanctions resulting from the nuclear issue and attempting to break free from the isolation imposed by Washington, Teheran is elevating China in the region as the privileged foreign interlocutor to negotiate with the Saudis. China’s presence in the MENA area is growing thanks to its policy based on soft power and its win-win approach, thanks to which Beijing demonstrates agility in taking advantage of some dissatisfaction directed at the United States and of the political vacuum left by Washington following its progressive withdrawal from the region. With strong trade, military, and intelligence ties to most of the important players in the Middle East, the United States still holds its influence; but China’s expansion in multiple fields – military bases in the region, vaccines, logistics, commodities, and the control of the supply chain for new critical minerals – makes clear that its pursuit of resources and influence goes beyond Asia. And as evidenced by Beijing’s engagement in the Saudi-Iranian dispute, there is another key player to consider in the MENA region’s ever-changing chessboard.