Saudi Arabia: Competing to normalise

Ahmed Mustafa , Wednesday 28 Jun 2023

Saudi Arabia has become popular with countries seeking to advance their political fortunes, from Tehran and Washington to Tel Aviv.

Competing to normalise
Iran s Foreign Minister welcomes his Saudi counterpart in Tehran


By the time Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud met with Iranian leaders in Tehran, Brett MacGurk — the top Middle East adviser to US President Joe Biden — was en route to Riyadh to push for a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was anxiously waiting for American efforts to bear fruit as he could do little to prevent the imminent agreements for stabilisation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Saud is the first top Saudi diplomat to visit Tehran since 2006. Relations between Riyadh and Tehran were severed in 2016, after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad were attacked during protests over Riyadh’s execution of a Shia cleric. Last March, China brokered a deal between the Iranians and the Saudis to restore diplomatic relations as a first step in a reconciliation process. Earlier this month, Iran opened its embassy in Riyadh and this week Saudi Arabia did likewise. But according to media reports Saudi diplomats will be working from a luxury hotel in Tehran. The reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran has been delayed due to the poor condition of the building which was damaged during the 2016 protests.

The Saudi foreign minister met his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, with whom he gave a joint press conference after the meeting. “I would like to point out the importance of cooperation between our two countries on regional security, especially the security of maritime navigation and waterways,” Al-Saud told the press. “Our relations are based on a clear foundation of full and mutual respect for independence, sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.”

The Iranian foreign minister told reporters that he and his Saudi counterpart “had discussed ways of bolstering cooperation in the fields of security, economy, tourism and transportation,” stressing that Iran’s view is that “regional security will be ensured by regional actors only” without external interference.

The Saudi minister later met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, handing him an invitation “to visit the kingdom soon”. According to a statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, “discussions between Prince Faisal and President Raisi focused on reviewing bilateral relations and exploring opportunities to strengthen and expand cooperation in various fields… They also exchanged views on recent regional and international developments, highlighting ongoing efforts in these areas.”

The Iranian president seized the opportunity to attack Israel, according to a statement from his office carried by Iranian official news agency IRNA. “Only the enemies of Islam, led by the Zionist regime, are upset by the progress of bilateral and regional cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Raisi told Al-Saud, according to IRNA. “The Zionist regime is not only the enemy of the Palestinians; it represents a threat to all Muslims.”

The echo of the development in Saudi-Iranian relations was loudly heard in Tel Aviv, where Netanyahu is keen on American help to convince Riyadh to normalise relations with the Jewish state. One Haaretz headline this week reads, “Seeking US Support for Saudi-Israel Deal, Netanyahu Keeps Mum on Iran Talks”. The piece concluded, “Israel’s stance on the Washington-Tehran negotiations is realistic: It can’t stop them, and has no chance of success in drawing anti-Biden moves in Congress.” The article also refers to reports about secret negotiations between Washington and Tehran, sponsored by Oman.

It is not only Netanyahu who is seeking a deal with the Saudis that could bolster his political position in the midst of destabilising developments facing his government. The Americans might be seeking a Saudi favour as well. According to the American news website Axios, which reported McGurk’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the visit takes place shortly after US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia: “The White House is pushing for a Saudi-Israeli deal in the next six to seven months before Biden’s presidential election campaigns.”

It is not clear if the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is keen to extend political favours to the Biden administration or not. Even if the prince is in favour of normalisation with Israel, he might not be in a hurry. A Saudi commentator notes that Riyadh is no longer ready to hand “free favours” even to the US.

With the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Netanyahu lost his leverage to push Riyadh to accept a peace deal. If the Americans are negotiating with the Iranians to secure even a “mini deal” before next year’s election, Netanyahu finds himself in an awkward position.

Some Western media commentaries have already noted that all this lines up well for the Saudi Crown Prince, regardless of whether it’s the US, Iran or Israel. As one pundit notes: “Everybody wants something from the Saudis, and they can pick and choose according to their own interests.” But the Saudis’ one choice looks clear: reconciliation with all on the basis of mutual benefits.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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