Saudi Arabia and Iran, two influential powers in the Middle East, have long been engaged in a bitter rivalry that has intensified regional tensions and impacted global affairs. However, recent developments have shown signs of a possible normalization of relations between the two nations. This appraisal explores the historical context, key issues, and potential implications of a Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement, shedding light on the prospects of stability and cooperation in the region.
The Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry can be traced back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, challenging the Saudi-led Sunni dominance in the region. Over the years, the two nations have engaged in proxy conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, supporting opposing factions and exacerbating sectarian divisions. Diplomatic ties were severed in 2016 following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, further deteriorating relations.
In recent years, there have been several notable developments indicating a potential shift towards normalization. One crucial factor has been the change in leadership in both countries. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Hassan Rouhani in Iran have expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue and reduce tensions. Additionally, the appointment of Ibrahim Raisi as Iran’s president, known for his hardline stance, has sparked speculation that his administration might pursue a more pragmatic approach to regional relations. Moreover, the devastating consequences of the Yemeni civil war, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been backing opposing sides, have highlighted the urgent need for de-escalation. The war’s toll on civilian lives and infrastructure has fostered international pressure on both nations to seek a peaceful resolution.
The normalization of Saudi Arabia-Iran relations would have far-reaching implications for the Middle East and beyond. Firstly, it could pave the way for increased stability in the region, reducing the likelihood of proxy conflicts and sectarian violence. A de-escalation of tensions would also create an environment conducive to addressing other pressing issues, such as the Syrian conflict, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have supported opposing factions, prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people.
Economically, the two nations have much to gain from improved relations. Saudi Arabia and Iran possess significant oil reserves and are key players in the global energy market. Cooperation between the two could lead to greater stability in oil prices and enhanced economic prospects for the region. Furthermore, joint investments in infrastructure projects, trade partnerships, and tourism initiatives could provide a much-needed boost to their respective economies.
From a geopolitical standpoint, a Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement would likely shift regional power dynamics. It could lead to a more balanced regional order, reducing the influence of external actors and allowing the countries in the region to have a greater say in shaping their own destinies. This would foster greater autonomy and self-determination for Middle Eastern nations.
However, achieving normalization will not be without challenges. Deep-rooted mistrust, ideological differences, and competition for regional dominance will require significant diplomatic efforts and confidence-building measures. The involvement of neutral mediators (China and Russia) or international organizations, such as the United Nations, could play a crucial role in facilitating dialogue and fostering an environment of trust.
Trust-building measures are crucial in overcoming deep-rooted mistrust. Confidence-building measures could include reciprocal gestures such as the release of political prisoners, the easing of travel restrictions, and the reopening of embassies. These actions would signal a genuine commitment to reconciliation and pave the way for more substantial progress.
Engaging in cultural and people-to-people exchanges can also contribute to fostering understanding and empathy between Saudi Arabian and Iranian citizens. Educational and cultural programs, sports events, and joint artistic collaborations could help bridge the divide and promote a sense of common identity beyond political differences. Additionally, addressing regional conflicts where Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved as rival actors is essential. Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are prime examples of areas where cooperation between the two nations could have a transformative impact. Working together to support peace initiatives, humanitarian aid, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts would demonstrate a shared commitment to regional stability and the welfare of affected populations.
In addition to the steps mentioned earlier, there are several other measures that can contribute to the normalization of Saudi Arabia and Iran relations. Track II diplomacy involves unofficial, non-governmental channels of communication. Utilizing think tanks, academic institutions, and civil society organizations, Saudi Arabia and Iran can engage in dialogue and exchange ideas outside the confines of formal diplomacy.These platforms provide an opportunity for open and constructive discussions, fostering understanding and trust between the two nations.
Economic cooperation can be a powerful incentive for both Saudi Arabia and Iran to seek normalization. The establishment of joint economic ventures, trade agreements, and investment partnerships would not only enhance economic growth but also create interdependencies that promote stability and cooperation. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can play a crucial role in facilitating economic integration between the two countries.
As custodians of Islam’s two holiest sites, Saudi Arabia and Iran have the potential to exert significant influence over the Muslim world. Engaging in religious dialogue and promoting tolerance can help bridge sectarian divides and foster a sense of unity among Muslims. Joint initiatives, conferences, and interfaith dialogues can contribute to a more harmonious relationship based on shared religious values.
Water scarcity and environmental challenges are pressing issues in the region. Collaborative efforts in managing shared water resources, promoting sustainable development, and addressing environmental degradation can provide a platform for Saudi Arabia and Iran to work together on common challenges. These efforts can build confidence and demonstrate a commitment to shared regional interests.
The path to normalizing Saudi Arabia and Iran relations requires a multifaceted approach that includes diplomatic engagement, trust-building measures, economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, and addressing shared regional challenges. By taking these steps, both countries can move towards a more constructive relationship, leading to stability and prosperity in the Middle East. It is through sustained efforts, dialogue, and a genuine commitment to reconciliation that the longstanding rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be transformed into a partnership that benefits both nations and the region as a whole.
Asma Khan Durrani is an Islamabad-based expert in Strategic Affairs. She is a student of Defence and Strategic Studies. She has done M.Phil. from SPIR Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad. She has also been published internationally. She tweets @AsmaKhan_47 Mailed @ email@example.com