Saudi-Iran reset will take time

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) received Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (L), Jeddah, May 11, 2021

The Saudi-Iranian contacts that began last month in secrecy has gained gravitas. The unannounced trip to Jeddah last night by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and the exceptional courtesies he received, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeting him at the airport, calls attention to the winds of change sweeping Gulf region. Sheikh Tamim returned to Doha by the crack of dawn but it was a substantive visit. 

The Emir was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani while a galaxy of Saudi princes and high officials were present at the talks, including the Minister of State and Cabinet’s member Prince Turki Bin Mohammed Bin Fahd; Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman; Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan; Minister of State, Cabinet’s member and National Security Adviser Dr. Musaed Bin Mohammad Al-Aiban. 

Last weekend, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Qatari foreign minister had said, “We welcome any dialogue or efforts and a positive spirit related to relations between Iran and the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, and we support such efforts and believe that dialogue is a constructive step toward the stability of the region.”

Earlier, in an interview with Bloomberg TV in January, the Qatari foreign minister was more explicit, expressing hope that a summit between leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran would happen. He said, “I think this is also a desire being shared among the other GCC countries… Also from the Iranian side. They have expressed their willingness several times to engage with the GCC countries.” Since then, both Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers have visited Doha in late March on successive days.

Tehran has warmed up to the idea of inclusive dialogue. It is in this backdrop that Iran confirmed publicly Monday that it was in talks with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the talks focused on bilateral and regional issues. He added, “The two countries and the region are interested in reducing tensions and hope to reach a meaningful understanding that will help change the atmosphere.”

Significantly, this is an exclusively regional initiative. The US assistant secretary of state for the region, Joey Hood, speaking at an event on Monday at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, acknowledged that “It is very important to have open dialogue to try to get things de-escalated” and Washington supported the Saudi-Iranian talks , “(but) we don’t have anything to do with them.”

This echoed the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s non-committal stance ten days back when he told FT, “If they’re talking, I think that’s generally a good thing. Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That’s another question. But talking, trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there’s a modus vivendi, trying to get countries to take actions on things they’re doing that you don’t like — that’s good, that’s positive.”

Blinken sounded unhappy and somewhat irritated. His words reflect the reality that the the US is a mere passive bystander while the two Gulf powerhouses in the Gulf are drawing close — and one of them is Washington’s client state for almost 80 years while the other is an archetypal enemy for the past 40 years. Blinken betrayed the waning influence of Washington in West Asia — although the White House keeps insisting that ‘America is back.’ 

The Saudi-Iranian drive to normalise ties is motivated primarily by the two sides’ deep distrust of American intentions. The US-Saudi alliance is in an impasse and Riyadh no longer trusts the US as a provider of security. As for Tehran, the regional climate today is conducive for advancing its long-held belief that the the regional security issues are best handled by the regional states without outside interference. 

The breakdown of the decades-old US policy to exploit the frictions in the Gulf to sell weapons and keep the local regimes on tight leash is self-evident. The Biden administration’s focus on engaging Iran is a wake-up call for Riyadh and other Gulf Arab regimes. 

Having said that, it must be understood that the Gulf regimes are far from staging a mutiny. The petrodollar continues to lubricate the western banking system and the wealthy sheikhs hold extensive assets, personal and otherwise, in the western countries. Nonetheless, they see greater logic in normalising relations with Iran so as to be in sync with the international community.

Besides, Saudis realise that engagement with Iran could increase Riyadh’s capacity to manoeuvre and create space to negotiate with the US. Above all, Saudis would like to be on the right side of history, as the US-Iran engagement holds the potential to galvanise conflict resolution in the ‘hotspots’ in the region — Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

Nonetheless, it is a refreshing sight that diplomacy is on the ascendance in regional politics. Thus, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mahmut Cavusoglu arrived in Riyadh on Monday on a 3-day visit — the first high-level Turkish official visit to Riyadh since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif is “almost certain” to travel to the UAE later this week, which will be the first of its kind in the past 5 years. Again, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief met with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus last week in another sign of the broad push towards lowering the temperature in the region. 

Succinctly put, Saudi Arabia is chartering own course rather than merely sub-serving or harmonising with Washington’s regional strategies. Credit must be given to the Saudi Crown Prince for having gone the extra league to convey his desire to normalise with Tehran. Prince Mohammed said in a recent interview with Al-Arabiya TV,

“At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country. All we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world.” 

Tehran has agonised whether this is a mere tactical shift due to a combination of circumstances — growing friction in US-Saudi relations, acute need for Riyadh to take Iran’s help to navigate a face-saving Saudi exit from Yemeni war, the US’ return to JCPOA and the lifting of US sanctions against Iran, etc. — or a genuine conviction in Riyadh that co-existence with Iran is in its strategic interests. The fact remains that unlike the Gulf Arab regimes, Iran is an Islamic republic, which is founded on revolutionary principles, and that remains an immutable reality.  

A reset of Saudi-Iran ties will take time. Herein lies the weak spot, as variables come into play. Fundamentally, the regional balance is tilting in favour of Iran as its integration into the world economy accelerates. In turn, Iran’s surge as a regional power will demand a lot of adjustment on the part of the regional states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the fizz has gone out of Abraham Accords.

All things considered, a US retrenchment from West Asia is not to be expected, as Washington fears that it may only open new opportunities for China and allow Russia to consolidate its regional standing further. Blinken’s remarks suggest that the US doesn’t think that a Saudi-Iranian reset is a done thing yet. These are early days and the US could always work its way back to the centerstage by creating new contradictions in Gulf security. The Saudi succession may turn out to be an inflection point, as Biden has let his aversion toward the Crown Prince be known.

The Biden administration’s blanket support for Israel over the latter’s attack on Palestinians and its desecration of Al-Aqsa mosque is a clear indication that nothing much has changed in Washington’s mindset. Israel’s clout with the US elite remains intact. And Israel will ensure that the US keeps its dominance in the Gulf, no matter what it takes. 

The point is, West Asia is not only about arms exports, petrodollars and terrorism, but a vital region that intersects with the Asian Century. It is a regional hub for China’s Belt and Road; it is where dollar’s pre-eminence as world currency could be seriously challenged; and, of course, roughly half of China’s imported crude oil originated from nine Middle Eastern nations in 2019.