Geopolitical tremors in the Middle East

Ahmed Mustafa, Wednesday 15 Mar 2023

The announcement of a Beijing-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore their diplomatic relations has set off geopolitical reactions across the region and beyond.

photos: AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received Saudi Arabia s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud in Moscow on 9 March (left). Two days later, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran s Supreme National Security Council, Saudi National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohamed Al-Aiban, and Wang Yi, China s most senior diplomat, signed in Beijing an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (photos: AP)


Almost all countries in the region and beyond welcomed this week’s announcement from the Chinese capital Beijing of an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Talks between Riyadh and Tehran started in 2021 and focused mainly on security issues. First hosted by Iraq, and then by Oman, the talks concluded under Chinese patronage with the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations.

Reactions to the announcement came in the form of a variety of formal and clichéd statements such as the deal might help to foster peace and stability in the region to louder ones describing the deal as a major geopolitical shift.

A joint statement by the three parties, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, said the agreement would see the opening of embassies in Riyadh and Tehran within the next two months and the two countries respecting each other’s sovereignty.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia hope the deal will act as a first step towards regional cooperation, the statement said. However, some Gulf commentators have played down the significance of the move, saying that mistrust of Iran runs so deep that it will require more than the present agreement to prove that its intentions are truly peaceful.

Saudi Arabia severed relations with Iran after demonstrators attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016 in protest at the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric. But animosity between the two Gulf neighbours stems further back, with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states accusing Iran of instigating destabilisation in the region by using proxy Shia militias like Hizbullah in Iraq and Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Saudis are also concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile programme, considering it to be a threat to the security of the Gulf countries.

China’s involvement in reaching the deal seems to have raised the temperature slightly in Washington and perhaps even more so in Tel Aviv. Since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel at the end of last year, he has renewed his long-standing endeavour to mobilise a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.

He has also tried to use this campaign to bring the Saudis to normalise their relations with Israel, though without success.

Though the White House welcomed the announcement of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, many in the US have accused the Biden administration of undermining the US’ global role and even of losing traditional allies like Saudi Arabia.

Some critics have echoed Israel’s anxiety at the deal, considering the Democratic White House to be responsible for Chinese expansion in the Middle East.

Nicaragua-based US journalist Ben Norton wrote on Twitter that “the same day China brokered peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the US imposed sanctions on Chinese firms it accused of selling parts that Iran uses to make drones… This says everything: the US only pushes for war and instability, while China brings peace.”

The Beijing announcement has also been more of a talking point in the region than it has in the countries directly involved. More significant is the fact that it is the first major foreign-policy move by the Chinese in the Middle East that has caused so much discussion of the future of US influence in the region.

Oxford University commentator Andrew Hammond said that the agreement might not signal a full-scale shift in the Gulf away from the US. However, it could mean that the divergence is widening, he said.

“What seems to be happening is a loss of faith in the US to keep the peace. So, it’s another story of dwindling US power and the slow emergence of a multi-polar world,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

However, the most noteworthy reaction to the Saudi-Iranian agreement came from Israel. Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the Netanyahu government of focusing on “destroying democracy” in Israel and ignoring the Iranian threat.

He defended the previous government that he led with Naftali Bennett against accusations by officials in the Netanyahu government that the previous coalition had been responsible for the development.

The Israeli media also quoted an official in the Netanyahu government pointing fingers at what he called the Biden administration’s “weakness” that had led to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.  

The official tried to play down the significance of the Chinese-brokered deal by arguing that the restoration of relations between Riyadh and Tehran would “not affect progress on the normalisation of relations” between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But many Saudi pundits say that Riyadh will not join the so-called “Abraham Accords” signed by Israel and other Arab countries including the UAE and Bahrain and normalising relations with Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is keen to pursue a different path, they said.

The Saudi rapprochement with Iran might delay that path or even push the Israelis to be more hawkish towards Iran, with the US approving this escalation. “The question is what it [the Saudi-Iranian agreement] will mean for Israel and the US and their belligerent approach to Iran,” Hammond said.

“The US has clearly been indulging Israeli desires to escalate with more brazen attacks inside Iran or against Iranian targets in Syria. If the Israelis lose hope of Saudi and Gulf connivance with any war schemes, will this push them to reduce the tension or to become even more provocative?”

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have been strengthening their ties with China, Russia, and other Asian countries in recent years. But the focus of their cooperation has traditionally been economic rather than political.

China is the world’s largest importer of Saudi oil, acquiring almost a quarter of its oil supply from Riyadh. The Beijing agreement is undoubtedly a major step in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf’s alignment with the east.

Many in the region are cautious about predicting positive outcomes of the agreement, as there are concerns that it could negatively trigger developments in hot spots in the region from Iraq to Yemen through to Syria and Lebanon.

But Saudi Arabia’s priority is the war in Yemen, and restoring relations with Tehran might facilitate a political settlement in that war-torn country. 


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

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