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Saudi Arabia cozying up with Iran: What’s driving this change?

A shift stemming from key regional geopolitical developments received a fresh impetus with a new man in Washington. But there's more.

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Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), in a surprise move, struck a conciliatory tone towards arch-rival Iran when he said while talking to the national media, “We are seeking good relations with Iran.”

Almost two weeks before the Saudi prince’s public acknowledgment of his side’s intent on engaging with Iran in good faith, on April 18, the Financial Times reported that senior Saudi and Iranian officials have been holding direct talks facilitated by Iraq in Baghdad. The negotiations, which began on April 9, encompass almost all key issue areas between regional rivals. 

Just when this news was beginning to settle in, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan proceeded on an official trip to Saudi Arabia. The high-level visit was preceded by the army chief laying the groundwork for the prime minister’s important tour of the Kingdom amid strained relations between the erstwhile close allies.

Prime Minister Khan’s visit was made possible by the fraternal military-to-military relationship between the two Muslim countries. 

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, said, “Bajwa, like all Pakistani army chiefs, calls the shots on foreign policy, and his visit was clearly meant to convey a Pakistani seriousness of purpose in advance of Khan’s arrival.”

Read more: As PM visit ends, what can Pakistan expect from Saudi Arabia?

Prime Minister Khan, who has remained a staunch advocate of peace and unity within the Muslim Ummah (Community) and has time and again played a role in defusing tensions and bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together, before embarking on his latest visit, said, “We welcome the KSA initiative for peace with Iran. Iran is our neighbor and KSA our closest friend. This peace initiative will strengthen the Muslim Ummah.” 

While there was no clear indication of discussion on Iran between the two sides, a joint statement released at the culmination of the visit mentioned that “the two leaders also discussed issues pertaining to the Islamic world. They stressed the need for concerted efforts by the Muslim countries to confront extremism and violence, reject sectarianism, and strive to achieve international peace and security.” 

A day after Prime Minister Khan concluded his landmark visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran publicly confirmed for the first time on May 10 that it is holding talks with Saudi Arabia to resolve all outstanding issues between the regional foes. “De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a televised weekly news conference.

Now when the two sides have publicly acknowledged the peace initiative, Saudi Arabia, in yet another landmark development, received the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Jeddah. This was the first high-level visit between the two sides since signing a declaration to ease a years-long rift and the accompanying three-year-long embargo placed by KSA on Qatar.

The development was seen as a major reset in Saudi foreign policy by analysts. For Saudi Arabia to extend an olive branch to Iran, especially when the two sides remain embroiled in intense rivalry, positioned on the opposing sides in various regional conflicts, had to have a broader context. 

Read more: Iran determined to resolve issues with Saudi Arabia

So, what exactly is driving this 180-degree shift?

For a first, since the inauguration of Joe Biden, one thing has become crystal clear: The Biden administration is not ready to offer a blank cheque to Saudis, unlike his predecessor who sold millions of dollars worth of military equipment to the gulf country. The US is adamant about recalibrating its relationship with Riyadh based on certain conditions of which human rights remain at the top of the list. 

The Trump administration had turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses perpetrated by Saudi led military coalition, but it seems Biden, who is a staunch advocate for human rights, is not ready to compromise on it with its strategic partner.

Since assuming office, one of the first decisions by Biden was ordering an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, followed by the releasing of a US intelligence report earlier this year, implicating the crown prince in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but spared him any direct punishment. 

Apart from the US withdrawal, it’s believed that the Saudi rapprochement with Iran began in the aftermath of Houthi drone attacks on two key oil facilities in 2019 that suspended over half of the nation’s daily oil production. Analysts believe the decision was driven by the Saudi leadership’s inability to respond and its US ally’s lack of immediate action against Iran – believed to be sponsoring the Houthi rebels. Although unlike the ongoing negotiations, the talks remained largely under the covers, it served as an icebreaker nevertheless.

It was reported by Al Arabiya TV in April that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants “good relations” with its arch-rival Iran and is trying to find solutions to longstanding problems [Iran’s nuclear program, missile launches, and support for “outlaw militias”]

It appears the Saudi prince wants Iran to support its initiative of “sitting at the negotiating table” and discuss a ceasefire with Houthis and find solutions that MBS claims could “assure the rights of the people of Yemen and also the interests of the region.”

Read more: Tehran welcomes Saudi Arabia’s “change of tone” for peace

But there is more. Saudi Arabia is already anticipating a world where Iran is no longer under pressing sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear program. As the negotiations between the six world powers, P5+1 and Iran, to revive the 2015 nuclear pact continue, Ali Rabiei, spokesman for the Iranian government, told a news conference on Tuesday that “General agreements have been reached on major disputes. On the lifting of sanctions, the remaining cases are very minor, and given the negotiation process, we are optimistic about resolving the remaining minor and practical cases.”

For Saudi Arabia to give diplomacy a shot with Iran had to have a broader context. A shift stemming from key regional geopolitical developments received a fresh impetus with a new man in Washington.

Shahmir Niazi is a Sub-Editor and Research Associate with Global Village Space with deep interest in international relations and technological developments. He can be reached at his Twitter handle: @Shahmir_Niazi.

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