The Saudi shift to the east

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 14 Mar 2023

The deal between Riyadh and Tehran might be a symbolic breakthrough, but does it really mean the end of America’s moment in the Middle East, asks Ahmed Mustafa


The announcement of a deal brokered by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been welcomed by almost every nation in the region and globally, though the US and Israel have not responded as warmly to the news.

Though dialogue between the two Gulf states has been on and off since 2021 at meetings in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and the Omani capital Muscat, the announcement of a deal this week came from Beijing.

According to a joint Saudi-Iranian-Chinese statement, Tehran and Riyadh agreed “to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months.”

“The agreement includes the affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs,” the statement said, meaning the reactivation of the 2001 security accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2016 after Iranian demonstrators set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in protest at the execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric.

However, the rivalry between the two countries goes deeper than that single event. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states have been wary of the Iranian nuclear programme and the country’s ballistic missiles development in addition to Iran’s interference in neighbouring Arab countries through its proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

The animosity intensified with the war in Yemen that started in 2014, drawing Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies face to face with the Iran-backed Houthi militia’s control of the country. Then came the nuclear deal between Iran and the West in 2015, which the Saudis opposed as it did not address Gulf concerns about Iran’s missile programme and its destabilising efforts in the region.

The Gulf Arab countries have long relied on US protection against Iranian aggression. That trend started to wane with the former Obama administration’s policy of disengagement with the Middle East. Although US president Donald Trump then warmed to the Gulf, a turning point came in the autumn of 2019.

An unprecedented missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in the east of the country halted the production of almost half the country’s oil output. Though the Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, it was widely believed that Iran was behind the attack. The US response was feeble, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states realised that they could not necessarily rely on US help when needed.

Meanwhile, a shift to the east has been a rising trend in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries, with primarily business and trade relations developing the fastest with powers like China and Russia. Saudi Arabia has also strengthened its ties with Russia through its OPEC+ alliance to stabilise energy markets, ignoring US pressures.

The war in Ukraine has also played a role in further distancing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf from US hegemony. The region has taken a neutral position on the war, against the wishes of the US. Though US President Joe Biden visited Riyadh last summer and met with Gulf and Arab leaders, a divergence from Washington and a move towards strengthening relations with the east has still been the case.

Late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh, held talks with Gulf and Arab leaders, and reinforced China’s relations with the region. Media reports hinted that Saudi Arabia was even considering the use of the Chinese currency the Yuan to price its oil to the Asian country. This would almost certainly undermine the US dollar’s global dominance.

However, apart from the formal diplomatic language in the official Saudi statements, many Saudi analysts are not upbeat about the new normalisation deal with Iran. Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly that “re-building trust needs a solid programme of action” so that Iran can prove it is serious in “stopping its aggression.”

It might also be too early to judge the impact of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement on hot spots in the region like the war in Yemen or the turmoil in Lebanon, he said.

Meanwhile, the US has been pushing for normalisation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. This week, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times published what they claimed was the price the Saudis are asking to normalise their relations with Israel.

The reports mentioned Riyadh asking for access to US weapons and help with a Saudi civilian nuclear programme, among other things, as preconditions for establishing relations with Israel.

However, a Saudi source close to the royal court dismissed the reports as “rubbish.” He told the Weekly that “we have already started our civilian nuclear programme, and the Americans knew about it in advance. That in itself tells you that these reports are baseless.”

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal at the weekend concluded that the waning US international role was giving China a golden opportunity to find a foothold in regions that have historically been of prime interest to the US.

The editorial mocked Biden’s claim that he is a “man to build alliances,” noting that he is losing a traditionally strong ally in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, many US commentators are wary of Europe’s response to Chinese strategic expansion and how that could affect the US-European alliance.

Despite this, pundits in Saudi Arabia have echoed Israeli statements that the deal with Iran has not adversely affected prospects of Saudi rapprochement and the normalisation of relations with Israel. The Israeli media quoted an official in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that “what goes on under the table could be more significant than public statements,” a reference to continuous clandestine dialogue with the Saudis.

Reports of a geopolitical shift in Saudi policy away from the US and towards China and Russia may well be exaggerated. Adopting a somewhat independent foreign policy does not necessarily translate into snubbing Washington.

Just a couple of days after the Beijing announcement of the Saudi-Iranian deal, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund had closed a deal worth $35 billion with US company Boeing to buy new planes for Saudi airlines.

The actual shift from the Saudi side is about seeking to achieve the country’s goals through diplomacy and diversifying alliances based on national interests. Even so, it would be hard to deny that such a shift could contribute to waning US influence in the region.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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