What Is Behind the Saudi Embrace of Iran, Yemen, And Syria, and What Are the Potential Challenges?
By Ali Abadi
If things go according to plan, steps aimed at restoring diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will pave the way for the reopening of diplomatic missions and consular posts in the two countries no later than May 9. This timetable is based on the expectations of Iran’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Alireza Enayati.
A Saudi delegation was in Iran to lay the groundwork for the reopening of the Kingdom's embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. Iran is also working to open its embassy in Riyadh and its general consulate in Jeddah ahead of the upcoming Hajj season.
Meanwhile, an atmosphere is being created for the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Bahrain. As for the rest of the Gulf region, Iran maintains diplomatic relations with ambassadors deployed in a number of countries, including Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar.
In short, the positive effects of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement agreement are resonating across the region. The only exception is “Israel”. Tel Aviv is weighing the possible repercussions of this development on its plans to form a regional alliance against Iran under the guise of normalization.
The United States is also alarmed by the diplomatic breakthrough, especially since the agreement was struck outside the American mantle. Instead, it was China that brokered the deal and established itself as a peacemaker and political actor in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s motives
In the past few days and not long after the signing of the agreement in Beijing, Saudi Arabia took a number of remarkably accelerated steps.
A Saudi delegation landed in Sana’a to search for a political exit from the war in Yemen, the Syrian Foreign Minister visited Riyadh at the monarchy’s invitation for the first time since 2011 in the framework of discussing Syria's return to the Arab League, and a delegation from the Hamas visited Saudi Arabia following years of antagonism between the two sides. And while the Hamas visit may have a religious dimension, the political component is highly evident.
The aforementioned developments are coupled with a positive atmosphere created by the Iranian-Saudi agreement in the broader region.
Furthermore, these developments are unfolding without taking Washington into account, which opposes, for example, any Arab reconciliation with Syria and any Chinese involvement in regional affairs that enable Beijing to gain a foothold there.
The background to the new Saudi policy can be explained as follows:
- Saudi Arabia tends to focus on achieving the 2030 economic vision that the Crown Prince dreams of. The economy and attracting foreign investment require stability, and ongoing confrontations in the region do not facilitate this vision.
- Eight years after the start of the war in Yemen, Saudi gains were modest, and perhaps disappointing. This was exacerbated by the rupture of the ranks of its Yemeni allies and disagreements with the UAE, which supports the secession of the south.
- Saudi Arabia is deeply resentful for not being given what it considers American security guarantees that oblige the United States to act in Saudi Arabia's defense in the event of any security challenge.
The attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facilities in September 2019 and Washington’s inability to do anything about it fueled Riyadh’s misgivings about American power, especially amid the American pivot to East Asia.
- The strengthening of economic, oil, and other ties between Saudi Arabia and both Russia and China contributed to creating a divergence between Saudi Arabia and the United States, in light of Washington's attempt to impose limits on these ties. This reflected positively on relations between Riyadh and Tehran, especially in light of the rapprochement between China and both Muslim and neighboring countries.
- Iranian threats of a retaliatory response to Saudi Arabia's interference in the events that took place in Iran last fall prompted a resumption in Saudi-Iranian negotiations. Riyadh accelerated steps towards a settlement with Iran following a brief slowdown in negotiations.
Iran's motives for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia can be summarized as follows:
- Iran has long sought to establish good relations with Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that this would deprive the United States and "Israel" of the fear card of the "Iranian threat". The reluctance came from Riyadh, which imposed preconditions for normalizing relations with Iran.
Instead of continuing to bear the high cost of fighting Iran's influence in the region, Saudi Arabia has now realized that exchanging security guarantees and economic interests with Iran constitutes a pillar of regional security. In turn, Iran seems today more ready to deal with Saudi concerns in light of the regional and international changes. Iran gives priority to removing all pretexts that could entrench the US military presence in the region and direct foreign interference in its affairs.
- The normalization of ties between the Gulf states and "Israel" led to an increase in tensions between Iran and these countries, especially after these relations took on the form of a security and military alliances. There is no doubt that the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would block the way for this alliance, which was built on a vision of hostility towards Iran. This is a great gain for Iran and its neighbors alike because it keeps the specter of confrontation away from the region.
- The US administration's procrastination, led by Joe Biden, in returning to the nuclear agreement and tightening sanctions on Iran, has led Tehran to search for ways to strengthen political and economic relations with the non-Western world, especially since the US blockade caused extensive damage to the Iranian economy. Iran now aspires to advance its economy by strengthening its relations with neighboring countries, including the Gulf states, as well as with Russia, China, and other distant countries.
Possible risks to the agreement
Saudi Arabia's positive turn towards the countries of the region seems sharp, sudden, and rapid, but at its core it carries a number of challenges. The most important of these include the following:
- There are fears that Riyadh would resume its American politics gambit in the event the Republicans win the presidential elections next year. There is a rotation between displeasure and a return to harmony in Saudi-American relations, although changes in international relations may diminish such prospects.
Relations between Riyadh and Washington have gone through successive bouts of heat and coldness since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the different approaches to regional events after the occupation of Iraq, the Syrian crisis, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Then, there was the joint return to harmony and agreement to besiege Iran under Donald Trump.
- There are hopes pinned on addressing the issue of the war in Yemen in a way that meets the vast majority of the urgent demands of the Yemeni and Saudi sides. This file constitutes a disturbing element for Saudi foreign policy and leaves its mark on dealing with other files.
However, question marks remain about the chances of a political solution, in light of Saudi Arabia's internal and regional calculations and the annoyance of the Yemeni parties affiliated with Riyadh over the latter's openness to Ansarullah as well as any possible delays.
In this context, the leaked top secret Pentagon documents indicate that “the Saudis intended to drag out the negotiations and avoid making firm commitments,” and that they “hoped to gradually decrease Houthi demands based on the belief that the Houthis are under pressure and in need of a détente on humanitarian issues before the beginning of Ramadan on 22 March.”
Despite this, the Saudis realized that the temporary truce would not bring them peace in the absence of meeting the basic demands of the Ansarullah movement, such as opening Yemen's sea and air ports, paying salaries to employees, exchanging prisoners, and then starting to discuss a political solution.
A day after his visit to the Yemeni capital, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jaber said, “I am visiting Sana’a with the aim of stabilizing the ceasefire, supporting the prisoner exchange process and discussing ways of dialogue between the Yemeni components to reach a comprehensive and sustainable political solution in Yemen.”
Direct contacts between Saudi Arabia and Ansarullah highlight what Iran has been saying all along, that the group’s decisions come from Sana'a.
- Talk in the Gulf about the need for Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to return to the Arab fold may open the door to a possible return to the policy of sharp polarization and clashes with Iran over regional files in the future, based on this stereotype that these countries follow Iran simply because they chose to establish close relations with it.
Such rhetoric raises fears that the current rapprochement is just a way to absorb pressure, given the inability to change the equation by the means that were used in the past.
The assumption is that everyone is aware of the past experiences and its costly results and that regional cooperation, not confrontation, is the way to solve crises. The experience of relations between Iran and Turkey can constitute a model that can be developed despite their disagreements on several issues.
There are also indications that, in exchange for the Saudi rush to rearrange relations with Iran, Yemen, and Syria, Riyadh may take a corresponding step toward a settlement with "Israel" on the basis of modernizing the Arab Peace Initiative launched by Saudi Arabia in 2002.
This step may please the United States and modify the American reservations about the Saudi steps in the opposite direction, but it may lead to renewed tensions in the region over the conditions for returning to the settlement in light of the Zionist’s extremism and exaggerations.