Saudi Arabia and Iran Poised to Share the Region’s Spoils – On China’s Terms

The restoration of diplomatic ties appears to have come out of nowhere. Could it herald a new era of diplomacy and non-confrontation in the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia and Iran Poised to Share the Region’s Spoils – On China’s Terms
Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Dec. 8, 2022. (Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which the Middle East was not subject to the rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the sectarian tensions inflamed by their regional enmity over matters petty and grave.

Perhaps they would have seen the conflict in Syria for what it was at the beginning, an uprising against a totalitarian and cruel regime by a long-oppressed people that, at the very least, did not warrant their interventions, whether by arming rebels and influencing their character toward Islamization, or by funding Bashar al-Assad’s war machine and abetting his massacres. Perhaps the spurious rationale for the Yemen war and that country’s subsequent devastation would not exist. Perhaps Lebanon and its political parties would be capable of making a single sovereign decision without referring back to their patrons in Riyadh and Tehran.

Perhaps their existential insecurities would abate, limiting their efforts to proselytize their strains of the faith and halting the spread of fundamentalism and intolerance in both their Sunni and Shiite variants across lands that depend on their largesse and patronage. Maybe Saudi Arabia would buy fewer American warplanes and finally match its fleet to the number of trained pilots, and Iran would stop firebombing its neighbors or funding the armed gangs that terrorize their populaces.

This is, of course, a fever dream utopia that has the same potential for realization as The Federation of Star Trek, NEOM, or the ideal communist society of Marx and Engels, barring some major Berlin Wall-esque collapse, and even that did not ultimately work out.

But the perfect must not be made the enemy of the good, and so it is with relief that much of the Middle East will welcome the halting rapprochement that the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic announced this morning after talks brokered by China.

There is a lot to unpack in both the announcement and its context. The deal, which was confirmed by the official state news agencies of both states, includes a restoration of diplomatic ties that had been severed in 2016, when a mob stormed and burned Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following Riyadh’s carrying out of a death sentence by beheading against the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2 of that year. That severing of relations was essentially a formality, as the diplomatic spat capped a decade of hostility that spanned the election of Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the assassination of the Saudi-backed Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri by Hezbollah and subsequent civil war close calls in the country, the accusation that Iran had plotted to assassinate the then-Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir in 2011, the arming and backing of rival factions in the region’s tumultuous uprisings and civil wars after 2011, and Riyadh’s vehement opposition to the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran and the subsequent lifting of sanctions that led to an influx of resources to Iran’s militias in the region.

The restoration of diplomatic ties will be marked by the reopening of each country’s embassy and the appointment of ambassadors after a meeting between their foreign ministers. They will also restore an obscure security agreement that was signed in the heady days of early 2001 to combat drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism, a landmark deal at the time during the government of Mohammad Khatami, who became the first Iranian leader to visit the kingdom since the 1979 revolution, where he met with then-Crown Prince Abdullah.

Despite this long-standing enmity, the deal is not a surprise to any close watchers of Gulf diplomacy. Saudi Arabia realized it needed to talk to Iran as early as 2019, ironically right after Iran oversaw staggering drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities that severely disrupted production. It was around the same time that Riyadh discovered the transactional nature of Donald Trump’s administration, which refused to strike back at Tehran despite its decadeslong security arrangements with the kingdom, as well as the subsequent tensions and distrust with Joe Biden and his administration, which had pledged to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi intelligence agents. These negotiations began in 2021, and took place in Iraq, Oman and China.

But the deal is also a capstone of regional diplomatic efforts over the past couple of years. Riyadh sought to defuse tensions with neighboring Qatar and to lift a multi-year blockade over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its close relations with regional rivals Iran and Turkey, over the objections of its ally the United Arab Emirates. It resolved its differences with Ankara as well, which led to the end of the Khashoggi murder case. And it has, for years, sought a face-saving way to end the quagmire in Yemen, a more distinct possibility now that a diplomatic deal with Iran has been achieved.

This non-confrontational approach to regional tensions is much more in line historically with how the Arab Gulf states have conducted their diplomacy. The past decade and a half that saw them fund armed conflicts and factions in the region’s civil wars, physically invade and bomb neighboring countries, blockade another state, and participate actively in proxy wars was in fact largely an aberration. I recall, while growing up in Dubai, watching public service announcements on television during the first Gulf War, with an Emirati soldier telling viewers that he was ready for anything, and asking them if they were ready too. The public hospital where my father worked was called the Kuwait Hospital initially, I believe because it housed refugees who’d fled Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Saudi Arabia was, of course, worried about Saddam invading it too. But when George W. Bush was planning the 2003 invasion, both countries opposed it, and then-UAE President Sheikh Zayed conducted shuttle diplomacy to try and avert war. The assertive and militaristic adventurism of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now appears to be coming to an end — the UAE, too, has brokered a detente with Turkey, defused tensions with Qatar, pulled out of Yemen and Libya, and even signed a peace treaty with Israel as part of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords.

It is of course curious with whom the two Gulf allies have chosen to publicly make peace. The Emirati deal with Israel was hailed as the start of a regional realignment meant to isolate the real threat to regional stability — Tehran and its proxies. Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia has continued to hold out on the prospect of joining the accords, despite longstanding secret and backchannel talks with Israel and their overt enmity towards Iran. The deal is a blow toward these efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic — the accords have not been meaningfully expanded, they have not become more popular on the ground, and their overarching goal has been undermined by the Saudi-Iranian deal.

Therein lies the main diplomatic failure at the heart of this enterprise — Washington’s. After Obama’s administration alienated its Gulf and Israeli allies in its unilateral pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran that did not include any provisions to limit its power projection in the region through active combat or funding radical groups, the outgoing president explained his rationale in a 2016 interview. Echoing the Kissingerian Cold War notion that the only path to stability is equilibrium or domination, Obama said that the Saudis and Iranians “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” Trump, who was far more inclined towards the Saudis, nevertheless failed to rebuild the trust in the relationship, despite repealing the Iran deal, by failing to stand up for his allies due to his transactional approach to global diplomacy. Biden could barely contain his contempt for Bin Salman, even as he sought his aid to limit the rise in oil prices due to the Ukraine war and Russian sanctions, choosing to avoid a photo op shaking the Saudi crown prince’s hand in favor of an awkward fist bump.

Nobody is under the illusion that the utopia of the first few paragraphs of this essay is likely to come into existence in any meaningful form, or that the hatred and rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh will even meaningfully abate, though the deal might result in some relief for the long-suffering populations living in their proxy battlefields. But whatever peace has been brokered had nothing to do with America and its waned regional influence. The Saudis and the Iranians are poised uncomfortably to share the Middle East again, but on China’s terms.

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