Tehran’s embassy in Riyadh has reopened for the first time since 2016, the Iranian foreign ministry quietly confirmed in April, in the latest of a series of gestures showing that the two Middle East powers are determined to dial down a rivalry that has disfigured the region for 40 years.
All kinds of signs, trivial and large, suggest the rapprochement is genuine: civilian flights between the two countries are to resume; an Iranian won an $800,000 Saudi Qur’an-reading competition; Iranian steel is making its way to Saudi markets; officials from the two countries were seen embracing after the Saudi navy rescued 60 Iranians trapped in Sudan; and Ibrahim Raisi is expected to announce a visit to Riyadh soon, the first by an Iranian president since 2007.
The reconciliation, nominally driven by the oddest of odd couples – Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Iran’s 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – was formally announced in China on 10 March when the two sides set out a two-month plan to normalise diplomatic and economic relations after eight years of tension.
Relations had broken off in 2016 after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran over the execution of a dissident Saudi Shia cleric. But in reality the two sides, which represent different cultures and wings of Islam – have been locked in proxy battles to control the regionsince the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The question now is whether these winds of change could spread through the Middle East, unlocking conflicts in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and even Israel, all of whichhave been aggravated or even sustained by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
One London-based diplomat counselled caution. “This is not a love story. It’s a mutually convenient timeout,” they said.
Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on ForeignRelations, said the deal was genuine but very fragile. “There are a few critical points, such as a potential new Republican president in the US, or an Israeli attack in Iran … Both sides are still looking at potential insurance policies.”
One Arab diplomat in London likened the process to the construction of a ground floor on which other countries could build, suggesting that the ramifications for the region could eventually be momentous. A deal could confirm Washington’s declining influence in the Middle East, weaken Israel, restore Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab fold, provide Saudi Arabia with a new long-term carbon market in China and start to end Iran’s economic isolation, he said.
But Ayham Kamel, the head of Middle East research for the Eurasia Group, predicted a slow process even with China acting as a guarantor. “You don’t shift from competition to significant cooperation overnight. I suspect Iran-Gulf relations are going to be taken out of an era of confrontation to a more natural one where there are disagreements, there’s competition and there’s cooperation.”
He portrayed the detente as part of a broader realignment in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries want global partnerships with the US as the key but not only pillar,” he said. “Their preference remains to have a much closer relationship with Washington, but they are not willing to cut relations with other powers such as China.”
Riyadh has not felt secure in its relationship with Washington for at least a decade. Once US dependence on Saudi oil ended, the former’s role as provider of the latter’s security was inevitably questioned and their paths slowly diverged. Riyadh saw Barack Obama’s support for the Arab spring as misguided, and it tried to block his efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.
Under Donald Trump, Riyadh got exactly the US policy it had been advocating, including maximum pressure on Iran, only to discover the policy was not to its liking. The fact that Iranian-made missiles temporarily shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in September 2019 was a shocking display of Saudi exposure. It was even more shocking when Trump did not come to Riyadh’s defence. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates felt deeply offended by the west’s perceived indifference when four vessels were attacked in the Gulf of Oman in May 2019.
Joe Biden’s promise in 2019 to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” hardly suggested the Democrats would provide salvation.
So Prince Mohammed wanted to get himself out of the line of fire, fearing Saudi Arabia would be Tehran’s bullseye in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. He wanted to follow the UAE – the ultimate hedgers – towards a less exposed place and to focus on developing the Saudi economy.
Farea Al-Muslimi, a Middle East fellow at Chatham House, said: “Saudi is done with that image as the world ATM. They are no longer a world cash cow.”
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have aggravated many pre-existing conflicts in the region, but it did not create them – and rapprochement will not bring them to an end.
Bianco said: “All of these conflicts are self-generated but they also have a regional dimension which feeds the domestic element, and that makes them more convoluted, more complex, more bloody.”
One potential chance for progress is in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where Iran has armed the Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition but now seems to be supportive of peace efforts.
Muslimi said: “The Houthis may also be exhausted after nine years of civil war. The Saudis for their part know the smallest Houthi rocket from Yemen can cost an extra $500m in insurance.”
But the rivalry between the Houthi movement, the internationally recognised government and southern separatist forces has its roots in Yemen itself. “Iranian control over the Houthis is not complete, so an Iranian promise to do what it can is just that,” said Dina Esfandiary, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group.
As a quid pro quo for Iranian help in Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears prepared to normalise relations with Syria’s Assad. He has been treated as a pariah for 12 years, but on Sunday his country was readmitted to the Arab League. Riyadh contends that normalisation may lead to a strengthening of Syrian institutions, and offers the most realistic way to regain influence and control cross-border drug networks.
But again there are obstacles. Qatar, Washington’s key partner in the Gulf, wants Assad to make political concessions, something he has shown no previous inclination to do.
It is also unclear what normalisation would mean for the large populations in areas outside Syrian government control. Assad wants Turkey to leave northern Syria, and to stop sponsoring militants in Idlib province, but Ankara is not willing to leave without assurances about the Syrian Kurds on its borders. The US is determined that the Kurds should establish a share of Syrian oil and gas resources along the lines of the federal model in Iraq.
A third country likely to benefit from an end to Saudi-Iranian rivalry would be Lebanon. It has not had a president since the end of Michel Aoun’s term in October. The role must by law be occupied by a Maronite Christian. Saudi and Iranian-backed factions have not been able to agree on a replacement despite successive round of voting.
The powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Amal Movement party led by speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, which together form Lebanon’s Shia base, maintain their support for Suleiman Franjieh, a close friend of Assad, but Saudi Arabia refuses to back him.
For the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, all this potentially spells disaster. He thought the Abraham accords engineered by the Trump administration would normalise relations with Saudi Arabia, but instead Riyadh is normalising relations with Israel’s enemies – Iran, Syria and even Hamas.
Senior Hamas officials visited Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2015, and Riyadh’s recent move to become a “dialogue partner” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in which Iran has observer status, can only add to Israel’s anxiety.
Reprising an old tune, Netanyahu recently told CNBC: “Those who partner with Iran partner with misery. Look at Lebanon, look at Yemen, look at Syria, look at Iraq. Ninety-five per cent of the problems in the Middle East emanate from Iran.”
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia might have agreed with that assessment, but it seems to have decided that cooperation, not Israel’s brand of confrontation, is the path ahead.