A year after Saudi-Iran reconciliation, concrete progress can be seen

Saudi Arabia’s new approach that looks after its own interests seems to be paying off. China has been pivotal in getting regional players to cooperate peacefully in a way that benefits all.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and former Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing April 6, 2023.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and former Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing April 6, 2023.

A year after Saudi-Iran reconciliation, concrete progress can be seen

On 10 March 2023, Riyadh and Tehran unexpectedly announced they would reinstate diplomatic ties.

In a brief statement, they confirmed, "In response to a generous initiative by the President of China, and with their desire to resolve differences through dialogue and diplomacy, discussions were held in Beijing from 6 to 10 March 2023 between the delegations of Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

“The three countries announced that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have reached an agreement that includes agreeing to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and representations within a maximum period of two months.”

Furthermore, the agreement affirmed the mutual respect for each party's sovereignty and the commitment to non-interference in each other's internal affairs and activated the 2001 Agreement for Security Cooperation and the 1998 Agreement for Economic, Trade, Cultural, and Scientific Cooperation.

To understand how the two regional foes got to this point, its important to go a few years back.

Saudi grievances ignored

In 2015, the United States signed a nuclear agreement with Iran despite Saudi Arabia's opposition to the move. Between 2015 and December 2018, Houthi militants in Yemen launched numerous attacks on Saudi ships and tankers in the Red Sea. Then, in September 2019, they targeted Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, disrupting half of the Kingdom's oil exports.

During that period, pressure mounted on Saudi Arabia to pull back from the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah, where it had been present to actively safeguard the flow of global shipping in the Red Sea.

These developments made it clear to Saudi Arabia that its traditional approach—which depended on America and other Western allies to ensure its security—was not working. This perception was further solidified by statements made by US President Joe Biden during his election campaign distancing America from Saudi Arabia.

The mutual interests that had bound the two countries for seven decades diverged for several reasons.

The first is that the US was no longer reliant on Saudi Arabia’s oil, having emerged as a strong global exporter itself. On its part, Riyadh diversified its economic partnerships—specifically with China—with whom it boosted trade and technological and economic ties.

China's leader Xi Jinping (centre) walks with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (right), following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 8, 2022.

Read more: China-Arab Summit signals potential of new era

Because the security-for-oil equation was no longer in play, Saudi Arabia opted for a new security approach to safeguard its own interests and realise its ambitious Vision 2030 goals.

To this end, it began talks in 2021 with its traditional foe, Iran, facilitated by Iraq and Oman. However, the negotiations, which stretched into 2022, failed to make headway during this period because negotiators lacked the necessary leverage and ability to provide guarantees to sustain any agreements reached.

Enter China

Leveraging its robust economic and political relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing emerged as a strong mediator. It used the Five-Point Initiative, drafted by Gulf states in March 2021, as a springboard to build upon.

Its principles include: mutual respect, commitment to justice and fairness, prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, collective security, development, and cooperation—tenets the Kingdom fully endorsed.

In February 2023, a month before facilitating reconciliation between the two nations, China introduced its Global Security Initiative, delineating a conceptual framework founded on ten principles.

Five of these principles were applied to Beijing’s proposal for achieving peace and stability in the Middle East:

1. Comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security

2. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations

3. Adherence to the goals and tenets of the United Nations Charter

4. Earnestly addressing the legitimate security concerns of all nations

5. A commitment to resolving disputes and conflicts between countries peacefully through dialogue and consultation.

These were slightly customised for the Middle East to include “the significance of supporting regional countries in establishing a collective security framework to safeguard their security” and taking “tangible steps to progress the resolution of the Palestinian issue, such as organising an international peace conference aimed at achieving a fair solution.”

The reconciliation facilitated by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran culminated in a ceasefire in Yemen and the launching of negotiations to achieve a lasting and viable resolution to the civil conflict there.

Additionally, it has promoted bilateral collaboration between the two nations in addressing regional challenges and bolstering their relations.

Because the security-for-oil equation with the US was no longer in play, Saudi Arabia opted for a new security approach to safeguard its own interests.

Milestone decision

In 2022, Biden visited Saudi Arabia, motivated by the need to stabilise global markets amid a notable surge in oil prices following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

His objective was to get Saudi Arabia to ramp up its oil production to mitigate the rise in oil prices. However, Riyadh did not capitulate. Instead, it prioritised its own interests and opted to scale back oil production, much to Biden's chagrin.

Upset by Riyadh's decision to decrease its oil production, the United States warned it could face potential repercussions.

This marked an important milestone in Saudi Arabia's new approach to putting its interests first. It also underscored the serious repercussions of drifting relations between Riyadh and Washington in the past decade.

Several months later, the reconciliation brokered by China with Iran affirmed that the Kingdom's new security approaches were not merely reactive responses to diverging paths with the United States but constituted a new security strategy founded on three main pillars:

Firstly, it addresses security issues with regional nations—notably Iran and Turkey, and their allies in the area.

Secondly, it endeavours to establish a fresh security framework rooted in the principles outlined by China in its 2021 five-point initiative and further reiterated in its global security initiative two years later, prioritising collective security for regional states.

Thirdly, it aims to be balanced in its dealings with key global players, particularly the United States and China, in a manner conducive to its interests.

Following Saudi-Iranian reconciliation and Riyadh's decision to cut back on oil production, Biden embarked on a fresh approach to addressing Saudi Arabia's security concerns: normalising relations with Israel in exchange for a defence pact with the United States, which could potentially allow Saudi Arabia to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme.

Additionally, a proposal was put forth to link India and the Gulf Arab states to Europe via land and sea routes to enhance trade and economic integration.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (L), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and US President Joe Biden attend a session as part of the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi.

Read more: All you need to know about the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor

Saudi Arabia responded positively but cautiously to Biden's new proposal. On the one hand, it saw it as an attempt to secure a political victory for the US president ahead of elections this year and, on the other hand, an effort to hinder the advancement of Saudi-Chinese relations.

Riyadh made it clear any such defence deal would have to be linked to a just resolution of Palestinian statehood aspirations.

October 7

While Hamas's attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 was shocking in its scale and success in breaching Israeli defences, it was not shocking in and of itself.

Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007. Its residents have been deprived of critical resources like food, medicine, fuel, trade, and communication with the outside world.

This dire situation has made it a tinderbox ready for explosion at any given moment. Similar escalations had occurred notably in 2008, 2012, and 2021.

The Hamas attack—followed by Israel's genocidal war against Palestinians in Gaza and the widening of the conflict to include Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq—underscored Saudi Arabia's belief that regional stability hinges on a just resolution of the Palestinian issue.

The war also served as a litmus test for Riyadh's new security strategies that began in 2021 and culminated in the reconciliation with Iran. Over the course of the nearly six-month war in Gaza, Iran and Saudi Arabia's political stances on the Palestinian issue were notably aligned.

Both sides underscored the urgency of delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza, the critical need for a ceasefire, preventing the conflict from spreading to neighbouring countries, and the imperative of ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, the US seemingly lost all control over its ally. Israel repeatedly ignored American 'requests' to halt its genocide and allow entry of humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flat-out rejected a two-state solution, despite Biden officials repeatedly stating that it was a necessary prerequisite for resolving the conflict and attaining peace.

Read more: Netanyahu's use of the Gaza war for political gain is leaving Biden exposed

Gaza is a litmus test for Saudi Arabia's new security strategy. Over the course of the nearly six-month war, Riyadh and Tehran's political stances have been notably aligned.

A regional war is not in Saudi Arabia's or Iran's interest. Such a conflict would only bring about devastation and shatter strides made toward economic prosperity.

It would likely derail the social and economic transformation projects that countries like Saudi Arabia have diligently pursued for years—projects that now serve as the guiding compass for their foreign policies.

Hence, no viable alternative exists for the region's nations except to embrace the principle of collective security.

ASEAN model

Countries in the region can look to various experiences for guidance—one of the most pertinent being the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This group comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Despite being ethnically, religiously, politically, and economically diverse, with numerous border disputes among them and concerns about Chinese influence in their region, these countries have succeeded in reaching consensus on three key issues:

1. Their disputes should not escalate to military conflict under any circumstances and must be resolved peacefully.

2. They should negotiate with other regional and global blocs as a unified entity to increase their economic and political influence.

3. Their disputes with China can be managed through economic integration rather than alignment with its adversaries.

The Asian-European meeting on the sidelines of the "ASEAN" summit in Jakarta.

In 1967, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand came together to establish the "Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)." Since then, there have been no instances of armed conflicts among ASEAN member states, except the armed conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. Notably, Vietnam and Cambodia were not affiliated with the association then.

The Gulf states, including the GCC states, Iran, Iraq, and even Yemen, could follow a model similar to that of ASEAN. While these countries are less politically diverse than ASEAN nations, they still face many shared challenges.

This includes transnational organised crime and terrorism, tackling natural disasters and climate change, safeguarding maritime trade, fostering economic diversification, transitioning towards knowledge-based economies, and promoting renewable energy sources. These challenges necessitate cooperation among the Gulf nations.

The pivotal factor that prompted ASEAN countries to adopt collective security principles and peaceful dispute-resolution mechanisms was the establishment of consistent diplomatic relations. Leaders and foreign ministers from these nations convene regularly to address disputes and enhance bilateral relations between their respective countries.

Within this framework, Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers should meet regularly. Indeed, these meetings have been occurring every six months and are geared toward evaluating progress in bilateral relations. There is additional potential to broaden the scope of these regular meetings to include other Gulf countries.

The objective would be establishing communication channels among all Gulf states, reinforcing the principle of peaceful dispute resolution and ultimately fostering collective security. It is imperative to recognise that such an initiative bolsters these nations' collective economic and political prowess on both global and regional fronts.

This option represents the best path forward for the region—a path that has recorded substantial progress since the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation was reached.

Progress made is tangible and concrete and only enhances the principle of maintaining a balanced approach to regional and international relations.

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