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Saudi Arabia and Iran: A New Era of Partnership and Change

Teriza Mir | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Image credit: Mehr News Agency via Wikimedia Commons

On 6 June 2023, the Iranian embassy in Riyadh reopened after seven years of broken diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As two of the most powerful nations in the Middle East and North Africa, their rapprochement will benefit citizens of each country and have far-reaching implications for the region. In particular, peace may be a possibility for the proxy-conflict zones of Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. China has also gained diplomatic credibility for mediating the deal.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have had a historically tense relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Saudi Arabia perceives Iran’s Islamic Republic as a threat to its dominance in the region, particularly as the two nations adhere to opposing sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a respectively. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1991 was spearheaded by Saudi Arabia in large part to stand against Iran’s growing regional influence.

Diplomatic ties between the countries were severed once before in 1988 following a fatal clash between Shi’a pilgrims and Saudi police at the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, an essential pilgrimage required of all able Muslims in their lifetime. Though relations were restored in 1991, the most recent diplomatic freeze was initiated by Saudi Arabia in 2016 after Iranian protestors stormed and damaged the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The violence was in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a high-ranking Shi’a cleric, on disputed terrorism charges.

Neither country has expressed strong opposition to the rapprochement, though commentators have been clear in framing it not as a marker of friendship, but rather a “mutually convenient timeout”.

Citizens of both countries are expected to benefit from this deal. The resumption of civilian flights between the nations will allow Iranians to more easily complete the Hajj. Bilateral trade is expected to return to pre-2016 levels, which amounted to USD $330 million per year in 2015. By comparison, that number was just USD $15 million in 2022. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major global oil producers, and strengthened relations could see future joint energy policies.

Politically, the deal presents a win for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi’s time in office has been marred with internal ministerial disputes and, most significantly, the ongoing national anti-government protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Zhina Amini in morality police custody last September.

The strong hand that both Iran and Saudi Arabia wield in the region have turned many countries into proxy conflict zones throughout their history, especially over the past seven years. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, Iran steadfastly supported Bashar Al-Assad’s government, while Saudi Arabia supported rebel insurgent groups and later a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemeni Civil War stand against a Saudi-backed national government. In 2021, the conflict in Yemen inflamed tensions in the wider Middle East when the then-Lebanese Information Minister appeared to blame the war on Saudi Arabia. The latter consequently recalled its ambassador from Lebanon, with many other Gulf states following suit, including Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Tensions were eased with the return of the Saudi and other ambassadors to Lebanon in April the following year.

The other side of the coin concerning these nations’ power to fuel conflict is their ability to engender peace. The recent conclusion of hostilities in Syria has led to marginally warmer relationships between it and the Gulf States. Further, Syria’s readmission into the Arab League in May is believed to have directly resulted from the rapprochement, as it opposes the wishes of many Arab states and even Syrian citizens that it remain suspended until political concessions and accountability for human rights violations are achieved. Similarly, a major prisoner exchange in the Yemeni conflict this April was linked to Iran and Saudi Arabia’s thawing relations. The easing tensions may yet pave the way for peace, as a ceasefire brokered in Yemen last April continues to hold over one year later.

The rapprochement also has global ramifications, particularly as it was mediated by China. Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his Global Security Initiative (GSI), a broad and ambitious attempt to challenge US global economic and security hegemony with an alternative model based on Chinese solutions and wisdom. Strained tensions between the US and both Iran and Saudi Arabia made a US-brokered deal near-impossible. In successfully acting as peacemaker, China has demonstrated its growing influence in international relations, particularly in the Middle East.

A key element of Xi-era Chinese foreign policy has been non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, as expressed in both the GSI and international development programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative. To many nations this is an attractive alternative to Western policies, which have historically been conditional on recipient countries upholding specific human rights standards or implementing economic reforms. While a non-interference policy upholds national sovereignty, it may be to the disadvantage of citizens hoping for foreign intervention in instances of government abuses of power. This may well be the case in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose governments are both cracking down on domestic dissent.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement heralds a new era of partnership and change. Significantly, as both countries are major players in regional conflicts, the easing of tensions brings hope of possible peace in the future. China’s successful mediation of this deal is a key marker of its growing power in international affairs, and as a challenger to US global hegemony. Far from being an isolated event, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s renewed diplomatic ties will create waves throughout the MENA and across the globe.

Teriza Mir is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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