Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Saudi-Iran Détente: Regional Implications


Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached an agreement to restore their bilateral relations, which is good news. The deal was driven by the need to end a costly and toxic conflict that has been disastrous for the Middle East. China played a role in facilitating the agreement, filling the strategic void left by the United States and Russia and demonstrating its credentials as a trustworthy global partner.

However, it is important to note that the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not disappear overnight. There is still a great deal of distrust and many points of friction that need to be addressed. The renewed relationship between the two nations may become a marriage of convenience driven by national interest and shaped by political and economic calculus, or it may become a marriage of inconvenience eroded by divergent ideological and regional agendas.

Riyadh and Tehran have agreed to reactivate cooperation and security agreements signed in 1998 and 2001, respectively. However, returning to the status quo ante of the 1990s is challenging after years of hostility. Their proxy conflicts have been devastating, with sectarian overtones undermining the security of both countries, crippling their economies, and tearing their societies apart. Therefore, the way forward is not the way back for the two regional powers.

In light of the new and complicated regional order they helped create, Saudi Arabia and Iran must chart a new and sustainable path forward that serves their and their neighbors’ national interests. This begins with refraining from intervening in each other’s affairs, wasting fortunes on undermining other Middle Eastern societies, and engaging in a costly arms race to the bottom.

The new way forward is an opportunity to lower tensions, mitigate damages, and compensate neighbors for the harm done to them. It is morally incumbent upon the two oil-rich nations to help Syrians, Yemenis, and other victims of proxy conflicts rebuild their shattered lives. China and the West should also help.

Beyond that, it is in everybody’s best interest if the protagonists try a hands-off approach to regional affairs, especially as their regional overreach allowed foreign powers to exploit and aggravate their conflict. Riyadh and Tehran must now take a common, firm stand on foreign interference, especially Western support for Israel’s colonialism and apartheid.

China has emerged as the biggest winner of the new deal. It will gain greater credibility and prestige as a responsible global player, having helped resolve a complicated conflict in a tough region considered part of the US area of influence. Moreover, as the sponsor, China will probably want to stay involved in order to see through the reconciliation and normalization process, which gives it greater access to the oil-rich region it needs to fuel its economy and military in the long run.

The Biden administration has welcomed the de-escalation in the Gulf but is unable to hide its anger and disappointment. This is especially so since Beijing succeeded in championing a diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East after Washington tried to block its mediation between Russia and Ukraine.

The Saudi-Iran deal may well scuttle the American-Israeli scheme of polarizing the region in favor of a pro-Israel and anti-Iran bloc. However, Saudi Arabia is not about to turn its back on the US or switch alliances. It is far too dependent on Washington in military and economic affairs. But like other regional actors, large and small, Riyadh is also going hybrid, merely adding one more relationship to its diplomatic mix aimed at securing its own interests first and foremost.

Iran has already developed relations with Russia and China. It may well add the US to the mix if or when the latter agrees to lift sanctions and strike a fair nuclear deal. In other words, the Saudi-Iran deal is an indication of a changing region and shifting geopolitics.

Welcome to the new Middle East, where states are acting more independently of global powers, shaping and balancing relationships and alliances instead of being shaped by them.

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