Iran and Saudi Arabia: From Competition to Companionship
By: Shujaudeen Amini
Iran and Saudi Arabia are two influential power blocs in the Middle East region. These two countries can be identified as a power bloc in three ways. Firstly, Saudi Arabia is seen as the representative of Sunni Islam and Iran as the representative of Shiite Islam. Secondly, the two countries possess the largest oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. Lastly, both are allies of major powers such as the United States of America, Russia, and China. The friendship and rivalry between these two countries has a significant impact on the stability and instability of the Middle East region. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the relationship between these two countries has become increasingly competitive. The level of this competition was such that it resulted in the severance of diplomatic relations for seven years. I will not divulge the secret of this prolonged competition and its detrimental consequences. However, I will discuss their friendship as well as how it functions since the commencement of their friendship chapter and the conclusion of the competition has become an enigma for many. What caused the two countries to spend numerous years competing with one another and suddenly sitting around the table of friendship? Will this friendship be ephemeral or permanent? Most importantly, what is the rationale for the commencement of the new chapter (companionship) opened by China? Has the United States played a role in bringing the previous chapter to a close? Will this friendship alter the face of the Middle East or not? This article seeks to briefly answer these questions.
- Exploring the Relationship Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
In order to gain a better understanding of the cause, it is necessary to examine the areas of alignment between Iran and Saudi Arabia. To me, the establishment of a friendly relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not come as a surprise, as they were not irreconcilable rivals. Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that there is more convergence than divergence between the two countries, with the areas of their agreement including:
1.1. Weakness of the Conflict in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria
The resurgence of Shiite Islam in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, which had been a source of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the past, has now come to an end, and the dispute over these three countries is no longer of interest to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia viewed the downfall of Saddam and the revival of Shiite Islam in Iraq as a threat to itself. Therefore, it preferred that Saddam remain in power in order to prevent the revival of Shia Islam in the Arab world, which could lead to the resurgence of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. To illustrate this, one can look to the United States of America’s military attack on Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Saudi Arabia supported the United States of America’s military attack on Iraq in 1991, which was not intended to defeat Saddam and bring about the rise of the Shiites. However, it opposed the military attack on Iraq in 2003 because Saddam sought to provide a platform for the Shiites, and this posed a danger to Saudi Arabia. Now, Saudi Arabia’s worries in this matter have been alleviated due to Baghdad’s efforts to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran over the past two years, which has helped to reduce tensions between the two countries. The conflict in Yemen has become a longstanding and chronic issue, and both sides are now less inclined to continue it. The conflict in Yemen demonstrated that neither Riyadh nor Tehran could overpower the other. Therefore, it was better to strive for stability in the region. After years of violent and aggressive conflict in Syria, peace is now relatively established. Re-engagement in Syria would not be beneficial for either country and could potentially lead to a new crisis.
1.2. Increase in Right-Wing Extremism in Israel’s Political Landscape
The emergence of extreme rightists in Israel is indicative of an area of alignment between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These rightists deny the necessity of establishing peace with the Palestinians, and do not grant them rights and privileges. Not only do they deny peace with the Palestinians, but they also seek a solution that would perpetuate and expand war and violence against them. Since Benjamin Netanyahu has been re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been reignited, and the prospect of peace appears to be more distant than ever. Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied territories is the main cause of the ongoing conflict between the two parties, and the Netanyahu government has not only failed to take any steps to stop it, but has instead insisted on accelerating it. As the conflict between Israel and Palestine intensifies, the need for alignment between the two countries will become increasingly apparent.
The intensification of military assaults by Israel on Palestinians has heightened tensions in the Islamic world and kept Islamic countries from forming a friendship with Israel. For instance, not long ago, Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, was due to visit the United Arab Emirates, but the trip was ultimately cancelled. Experts believe two issues were particularly influential in the cancellation of the trip. Firstly, Netanyahu may have made disparaging remarks about Iran, which would have caused a rift between Iran and the UAE. Secondly, there was the fear of the Muslim public opinion, particularly Palestinians, who are currently being subjected to Israeli military attacks. Despite this, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have still signed an agreement to normalize relations.
1.3. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Unveils Reform Plans
The enthusiasm of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud for reforms has been effective in reducing the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as he has initiated reforms in many areas in Saudi Arabia. The only area that does not include the Crown Prince’s reformist programs is the circulation of power through the democratic channel. The reforms in socio-cultural fields have been remarkable, with the most notable example being the facilitation of women in high government positions. Additionally, with the unprecedented attention to sports, music, and acceptance of world travelers, immigrants can be seen as an attempt at social transformation in Saudi Arabia. The attempt to save Saudi Arabia by relying on the oil economy and replacing it with a manufacturing economy can be another example of the Saudi Crown Prince’s reformist plans. These reformist programs in Saudi Arabia contribute to the closeness between this country and Iran, which avoids changes through war and militarism and interference in the internal affairs of other countries. To complete these changes, this country should avoid entering into proxy fights and spending on the purchase of military equipment. Saudi Arabia has well understood the necessity of not entering proxy wars, and thus has preferred reformist programs to proxy wars.
1.4. Iran’s Inevitability
Iran also has certain inevitabilities which have encouraged it to interact with Saudi Arabia. Now that the friendship between the two countries has just begun, both sides have shown a desire to secure the relationship. Iran has not faced any threats in recent months, however internal protests have had consequences. Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi has not been silenced yet, and since he considers himself to be the claimant of the Sunni community, he does not work in the interest of Iran. Additionally, Iran’s international isolation continues to threaten it; rumors that Iran is alleged to support Russia in the Ukraine conflict and protests inside the country have increased the threat of international isolation. Therefore, interaction with Saudi Arabia could potentially help to alleviate some of Iran’s troubles both internally and externally.
- China’s Initiative to Resume Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations: What Role Does the U.S. and Russia Play?
2.1. China’s Role
China’s role in facilitating the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been prominent and decisive. Baghdad has been attempting to act as a mediator in this case for several years, yet has been unsuccessful. However, China was able to accomplish this mission in a matter of days. The complex relationship between these two countries was only untangled by the emphatic efforts of China. Without China’s involvement, the news of the resumption of relations between the two countries would not have been announced so soon. Therefore, several points are worth noting regarding the role of China.
2.1.1. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, recently visited Saudi Arabia, where he and his officials were warmly welcomed by the Saudi officials. This reception was met with reactions from both the friends and rivals of both countries. To appease the Saudis, China signed a joint declaration and published it, which was seen as a violation of Iran’s interests and caused the Iranian authorities to become angered. Now, it appears that China is attempting to make amends by bringing the two rivals together. If this is the case, Beijing does not wish to sacrifice one for the other, but rather to maintain a balance in securing the relationship between the two countries and not lose either of them.
2.1.2. The second assumption is that China has a different strategy to fill the void left by the United States of America in the Middle East, should the United States of America choose to remove its influence from the region. If this assumption is correct, China has demonstrated its capability to maintain relationships with both America’s allies and adversaries. Beijing has also indicated its potential to take a leading role in the current international climate of hostility. If China were to enter the fray, it is likely that it would be able to resolve the difficult conflict in Ukraine.
2.1.3. The third assumption is that China has entered the field with an economic motive to facilitate interaction between these two countries. China has long sought to increase its economic power, and to do so, it requires an atmosphere free of violence and militarism. In order to expand its presence in the Middle East, Beijing must first address the root causes of conflict and violence, as much of the chaos in the region is due to the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition to economic motivation, establishing stability and security is of paramount importance to China, something that is not a priority for the United States of America and its allies. The United States of America, which filled the void left by England and France in the Middle East after World War II, has done little to ensure stability and security in the region. Not only did the United States of America attempt to end the conflict between the Arabs and Israel, but it also sought to exacerbate tensions between Sunni Arab countries and Iran.
2.2. The United States’ Role
It appears that Saudi Arabia has received the approval of the United States and its allies to reestablish relations with Iran. Otherwise, such a decision could cause the United States and its allies to withdraw their attention from Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the United States is inclined to improve its relations with Iran. The restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could bring the United States closer to this objective. In particular, the following points are of utmost importance with regard to the role of the United States:
2.2.1 The United States of America has no desire to militarily attack Iran due to the potential consequences. However, Israel, America’s strategic ally in the Middle East, has been considering a military attack on Iran since the rise of the extreme rightists in power. This has caused Israel to threaten Iran with a military attack on a regular basis, and its lobby is attempting to draw the United States of America into the conflict, which the United States of America is not interested in. To reduce the risk of a military attack on Iran by Israel, the United States of America has agreed to strengthen the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Israel would not be able to fight both countries at the same time. The United States of America is avoiding war with Iran in order to avoid being involved in multiple fronts.
2.2.2. The United States of America is eager to reinstate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The visit of Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to Iran and his positive outlook on the meeting with the Iranian authorities indicates that the reinstatement of the JCPOA is a priority for Iran. If Saudi Arabia so desires, it can have a significant impact on the revival of this agreement. Reinstatement of the JCPOA can eliminate the perception of Iran’s backing of Russia in the Ukraine war and prevent Tehran from falling into the hands of Russia and China. Additionally, it can reduce the risk of an Israeli military attack on Iran and improve the relationship between Iran and America.
2.3. Russia’s Role
The only power dissatisfied with the newly-established relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is Russia. Russia is aware that this alliance will not only bring Iran closer to Russia and China, but also help to improve its ties with the United States of America and its allies. Russia perceives its advantages in the continuation of the discord between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran and Israel. It can be said that Russia even condones a military attack by Israel on Iran, believing that this attack will draw the United States of America and its allies into the conflict. If this occurs, Russia believes that China will sharpen its claws and teeth towards Taiwan, and this could lead to the weakening of the Western front and the strengthening of the Russian front.
Will the restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia alter the landscape of the Middle East?
The answer to this question is yes. Given that Iran and Saudi Arabia are two major powers in the Middle East, their connection and disconnection can have an impact on the stability of the region. The resumption of relations between Riyadh and Tehran could have the following consequences:
- Israel’s Isolation
In the Middle East, Israel is the only country that is adversely affected by the close proximity of Saudi Arabia to Iran. Since the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel has been striving to maintain the unity of the Sunni Arab countries against Iran, with the United States of America providing assistance. This was exemplified by the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on August 13, 2020, which was facilitated by former President Donald Trump. Additionally, Israel and the United States of America have invested heavily in keeping Turkey and Azerbaijan away from Iran, in an effort to use these Sunni Arab countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan, as a counterbalance to Iran’s regional influence. However, Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran could potentially undermine this strategy, as the Sunni Arab countries are largely following the path that Saudi Arabia has chosen. If the reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is successful and long-lasting, Israel will be left isolated in the region.
- Ending the Arms Race
Since the end of the First World War, the Middle East has been a battleground for the great powers. The legacy of this conflict is the arms race that has been intensifying in the region. This is largely due to the conflicting interests of the great powers, Arabs, and Israel, as well as Israel and Iran, and Iran and the Arabs. For instance, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt wanted to focus on the economy and put Egypt on the path of industrialization. However, the support of the Western countries, particularly the United States, to Israel, and the challenge and cooperation of Israel, forced him to shift his focus away from the economy and towards strengthening the army and providing war equipment for the survival of Egypt and the Arab countries. The arms race has had a detrimental effect on the Middle East, causing governments in the region to remain authoritarian and unable to transition from an oil/rent economy to an industrial and production economy. Furthermore, the attention given to the arms race by the governments of this region has prevented them from paying attention to the consolidation and stabilization of democracy.
According to some findings, the remaining underdeveloped countries allocate up to five percent of their national income to purchase weapons. However, the governments of the Middle East spend at least 15 percent of their national income on the arms race. For example, Syria’s defense spending is approximately 18%, and 3.9% of its workforce is employed in the military sector, while this figure is 0.8% in the United States (Milton Edwards and Peter Hinchcliffe, 1390, 4). Now, the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia could put an end to proxy wars in the Middle East, and this could shift the oil states of the Peace Gulf from the arms race to focus on the economy.
- Seeking a Resolution to the Palestinian Conflict
The Palestinian conflict has been a source of distress for Islamic countries, yet it has not been able to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together until now. Resolving the Palestinian crisis necessitates the cooperation of Islamic countries, not their division. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has caused the focus of Islamic countries (except Iran) to be diverted away from the Palestinian conflict. If a regional solution is to be found for the Palestinian issue, it can only be achieved through the unification of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, if a trans-regional solution is to be found for the Palestinian problem, it can be accomplished through the alignment of Iran and Saudi Arabia with the United States. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran have signed a pact of friendship and the United States is a supporter, it can be said that the conditions for ending the Palestinian conflict are favorable, provided that the United States takes an active role and applies the necessary pressure on Israel.
It has been suggested that Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two main powers in the Middle East, and that their friendship and rivalry have a significant impact on the stability and instability of the region. Furthermore, it has been noted that there are more areas of agreement than disagreement between the two countries, such as the waning of the conflict in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, the reformist programs of Saudi Arabia, the inevitability of Iran, and the rise of right-wing extremists in Israel. Additionally, China’s objectives, which may include softening its relationship with Iran, competing with the United States in the Middle East, or increasing its economic power, were also discussed. The United States of America was pleased with the reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as it does not wish for a military attack on Iran and is in favor of the revival of the JCPOA. Russia’s role was also discussed, which appears to be displeased with the renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It was further suggested that the friendship between Iran and Saudi Arabia could lead to the isolation of Israel, the end of the arms race, and the resolution of the Palestinian crisis.