The Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran Accord has been proclaimed a significant development in the Gulf region. After decades of animosity and formally severing diplomatic ties in 2016, the two main regional powers have restored their diplomatic ties after seven years. However, at present, how this major development of the Middle East accounts for regional peace, in the long run, remains a very open question and has left many analysts to estimate its possible prospects critically.
Notably, Saudi Arabia and Iran had previously been engaged in talks with the efforts of regional countries Iraq and Oman. However, the latest restoration of ties was facilitated by China and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, present to shake the hands of Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, the Saudi national security adviser, and Ali Shamkhani, the Supreme National Security Council Secretary of Iran. The two countries’ joint statement attributed President Xi Jinping to the “noble initiative” of bringing the two countries closer. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have avowed their reverence for the “sovereignty of states” and “non-interference” in internal matters of each other.
The Saudi-Iran Accord indicates a growing interest from China in the Middle East and its efforts to play a more proactive role in resolving regional conflicts.
It also reflects that Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to diversify their diplomatic options and are willing to engage with China as a mediator in their ongoing disputes. How much influence China will have in the ongoing disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. Still, this development reflects a shift in China’s role in the Middle East and its willingness to engage in diplomatic efforts to promote regional stability.
Over the past decade, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has been a major source of instability in the Middle East. This rivalry has had subverting consequences, particularly in Yemen and Syria, where the two countries have been fighting a proxy war while continuing to support the opposing sides in the conflicts. In addition, the attacks against Emirati oil tankers and Saudi energy infrastructure in 2019 and 2020, allegedly carried out with Iranian support, have further escalated tensions and threatened global energy security and the safety of maritime routes.
The improved bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are expected to bear favorable fruits for the future of the Middle East. Enhanced ties between the two countries can help reduce regional strains by lowering the chances of proxy skirmishes and abetting diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes, which can promote peace and stability in the region. Furthermore, the increased economic cooperation can foster economic collaboration between Riyadh and Tehran, comprising collaborative investment projects and increased trade, thereby benefiting both countries.
The Saudi-Iran deal has brought a beam of hope for Syria, a war-torn theatre of the Middle East. Iran is a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, whereas Saudi Arabia has been sponsoring the political opposition in Syria to overthrow Assad’s regime. Riyadh has been chipping in hundreds of millions of dollars to the coalition attempts in Syria, as per 2015 statistics, while hosting over 2.5 million Syrians. However, despite its crippling economy, Iran has disbursed approximately $30 million in the Syrian war. This conflict has cost both countries much over the past decade. Thus, comprehensive dialogue to bring about governance and administrative reforms in Syria for an enduring solution is impeccable for peace in the region. Syrian Foreign minister has also applauded the Saudi-Iran deal as a constructive step towards regional stability.
Economic and security cooperation prospects have also augmented with the resumed diplomatic channels between Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to a trilateral statement issued by PRC, Riyadh, and Tehran have agreed to instrument the 2001 Security Cooperation Agreement. Other agreements include resuming the operation of the General Agreement for Cooperation signed in 1998 in areas such as trade, investment, economy, culture, science and technology, sports, and youth.
The Western sanctions still pose a great challenge to bilateral trade between Riyadh and Tehran.
However, both states can create free trade zones if Saudi Arabia indorses Iran against the sanctions imposed by the West, leading to increased economic integration in the region. The normalized Saudi-Iran ties will expectedly provide an impetus to nuclear non-proliferation in the region. Even though, at present, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is shabby, however, to avoid provoking Riyadh’s nuclear elusiveness, Tehran may abjure taking the aggravating steps to safeguard its already crippled economy.
Moreover, the enhanced oil cooperation between Riyadh and Tehran might stabilize oil prices globally, and both economies can benefit from it. Amended ties between the two countries can help them have more sway in regional affairs, which can serve to address the issues of common concern more effectually, for instance, counterterrorism and encouraging regional development. Also, the collaboration on energy challenges can help endorse sustainable development in the Middle East, via the transition to cleaner energy sources, by lessening both countries’ dependence on fossil fuels.
Besides cooperation in the traditional security domain, the Saudi-Iran diplomatic rendezvous also offer potential for collaboration on non-traditional security issues in the Gulf region. Climate change is one such avenue of cooperation between the two countries. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the largest greenhouse gas emitters and hence the most vulnerable to climate change consequences. The latest reports show that Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the top fifteen “super emitters,” the largest contributors of methane gas to the atmosphere globally. Riyadh has fixed the carbon capture target of 44 million tons annually by 2035. Tehran can take advantage of this opportunity to get assistance from Saudi Arabia concerning carbon capture technologies to foster bilateral and regional cooperation.
Undeniably, the issues of such high politics will not be resolved instantaneously. However, the small steps taken by the two leading powers of the Middle East will undoubtedly have a spill-over effect, provided the issues are addressed properly since the problems of the Gulf region are intricately linked. For instance, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s bilateral relations, which became estranged in 2021, given Lebanese criticism of Riyadh’s role in the Yemen war, might now relax after this latest rapprochement effort. If peacebuilding efforts are successful in Yemen, it will naturally lead to better Saudi Lebanese ties. Likewise, Iran seeks to extend détente by restoring diplomatic relations with Bahrain, just as Saudi Arabia has pledged to normalize ties with Syria, a strong Iranian ally, right after Ramadan. China can play a much better role by formally hosting a GCC-Iran summit to restore order in the Gulf region.
The Saudi-Iran rapprochement has brought far-fetched hopes, as the deal is a remarkable leap forward in a much-polarized Gulf region.
It is incumbent to address the pertinent issues that have escalated regional tensions in the past to attain long-term stability in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, proper communication channels and a comprehensive and collaborative strategy are required to foster cooperation and enable exchanges among the regional countries to bring out regional stability.
Abu Hurrairah Abbasi works as a Researcher with the Arms Control and Disarmament Center at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and is a graduate student of International Relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include the Politics of South Asia, Emerging Technologies, and Non-Traditional Security threats. He can be reached at email@example.com. He Tweets @theabuhurrairah
Saher Liaqat works as a Researcher with China-Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and is a graduate student of International Relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. She is also working with China Study Centre at COMSATS University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include the International Politics of China, the Politics of South Asia, and Non-Traditional Security threats. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org She Tweets @thesaherrajput