The recent rapprochement between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran facilitated by China marks a black swan event that has the potential to transform the Middle East region through the resolution of outstanding disputes, increased multilateralism, and concentrated efforts for economic diversification.
The rivalry was primarily developed in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, which resulted in the development of a binary in the region where Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a power struggle as two regional powers to exert their influence across the region, which was often perceived to be mutually exclusive by them. Their support for leaders and non-state actors across the region was premised upon a combination of ideology and geopolitics.
The rapprochement indicates a shift from the binary towards a more stable region having the potential to emerge as an important bloc in the current world order while allowing key states to direct their energies in pursuing their internal reforms. It is, however, pertinent to examine the factors that led to this development and its potential impacts.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be the main benefactors of the normalization. For Saudi Arabia, the ceasing of hostilities with Iran would provide it the space to advance its economic diversification agenda, as enshrined in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. For Iran, it is a diplomatic breakthrough amid crippling sanctions and the strengthening of its ties with China. The decision has also been welcomed at the Arab League’s 32nd Arab League summit held around mid-May.
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However, not everybody in the region and beyond seemed happy with the development. Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid termed the development as “a total and dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government,” while former prime minister Naftali Bennett called it “a serious and dangerous development for Israel, a political victory for Iran and a fatal blow to the effort to build a regional coalition against Iran.” The United States also expressed what has been termed as cautious optimism, with officials terming it a positive development while also indicating skepticism of Iran holding up its end of the deal.
From the part of Saudi Arabia, the shift indicates a wider recalibration of the Kingdom’s domestic and global agenda. Historically characterized by a conservative mindset based on the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, the Kingdom has gradually taken numerous steps to reform and rebrand itself under the leadership of the Saudi crown prince and prime minister Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The Vision 2030 Strategy in this regard was unveiled by MBS in 2016, through which the Kingdom seeks to diversify its economy, reduce its dependence on oil, and develop public service sectors focusing on tourism, infrastructure, health, and education.
Moreover, a major shift can clearly be seen in the context of Saudi’ thinking and conduct of international relations in recent times. The America First policy pursued by Donald Trump caused great distress among US allies as he continuously complained that the countries hosting US troops are not paying enough. He went on to say in 2018 that the Saudi King wouldn’t last ‘two weeks’ without US support and that it should pay more for its defense.
A subsequent attack on Aramco’s oil facilities in 2019 knocked out around half of the Kingdom’s oil output, further aggravating the Kingdom’s anxieties with regard to its security. It is believed that these two factors combined led Saudi Arabia to rethink its complete dependence on the US for security needs in a region where instability is primarily caused by its competition for influence with Iran. Biden’s election campaign statements in which he promised to make Saudis “pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are” further added fuel to the fire.
Biden eventually had to travel to the Kingdom in 2022 to ask the Kingdom to increase oil supplies amid a global energy crisis triggered by the Ukraine conflict, but the effects of these developments could be seen in the form of a cold Saudi reception, perfectly depicted in the first bump between both leaders. The Kingdom is also set to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) joining Iran from the region and expressed its willingness to join China-led BRICS alongside Iran, which depicts that the Kingdom has swayed from its predominantly US-centric foreign policy and fostering wider ties with its largest trading partner China. China, which also recently signed a $400 billion strategic partnership with Iran spanning 25 years, already enjoys long-lasting relations with Iran.
The results of the rapprochement are already visible. Efforts to end the Yemen war have already been initiated by Saudi Arabia, Syria has been re-admitted to the Arab League after a hiatus of more than a decade, and efforts for improvement of relations between Iran and Egypt are underway, and it’s just the beginning. Given the emphasis on each other’s sovereignty in the China-brokered rapprochement, it has the potential to stabilize the region if both sides adhere to the deal by halting their support for their alleged proxies across the region, which would address each other’s primary security concerns. It can also be said that a peaceful Middle East in the absence of regional power competition has the potential to emerge as an essential region in the evolving multipolar world order, and the ceasing of an inter-region power struggle with an end to the binary divide can uplift the region as an important stakeholder of the likes of EU and ASEAN in the arena of global politics.
Therefore, it can be argued that the Saudi-Iran rapprochement has the potential to transform the Middle East region at the state, regional, and international levels. Keeping its already-evident implications in mind, it has the potential to resolve outstanding conflicts in the region, enabling states to direct their energies on their economies, with an increased focus on geo-economics. The region needs to capitalize upon this momentum to build a regionally-integrated and internationally-united region having political leverage in the international system as it seeks to stay relevant in a post-oil world.
The author is a Researcher at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) Islamabad.