InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 20

Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement

It is a pleasant surprise for Muslims that Saudi Arabia and Iran have started talks to normalise relations between them. Though it is still premature to predict the outcome of their efforts, yet it is a great breakthrough in itself that the archrivals have decided to settle their issues through dialogue. If they reach an agreement, it will not only benefit the two Muslim countries, but also the region and the whole world.

No leadership of any country would be happier than Pakistan’s, if relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran normalize, because they directly affect Pakistan in terms of sectarian violence, and ever-increasing oil prices. Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships have also worked hard to defuse tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan set out on an ambitious mission to defuse escalating tensions between the archrivals. Some regional and international developments forced the two countries to come to the negotiation table.

However, analysts say no immediate breakthrough is expected. Retired Columbia University professor and former US diplomat Gary Sick told the Voice of America he thinks that it’s “always a positive sign” when Iran and Saudi Arabia are negotiating, but that he does not anticipate any “immediate breakthrough.” “Although we apparently had one or two meetings between the Iranians and the Saudis, the progress, if any, has been extremely glacial and I certainly don’t think that this is going to result in an embrace between these two rival powers anywhere in the near future,” he said.

Washington-based Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik told VOA that he thought part of the incentive to find a working arrangement between Saudi Arabia and Iran revolved around the United States shifting its focus of attention from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. “Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he says, “are attempting to find ways to cooperate in a non-political, non-religious manner (in domains which include) transportation, entertainment, investment and family relations (for a better) future.” He adds that both Iraq and Oman are involved in the talks and that Qatar “wants to get involved, too.” Former diplomat Sick says he was “surprised” to see Iraq leading efforts to mediate an accord between the two rivals of the Islamic world but points out that Tehran claimed its late military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, killed by a US drone attack in Baghdad in 2020, was carrying a message to Saudi Arabia when he died.

Experts say a new government in the US has forced Iran and Saudi Arabia to defuse tension between them. In his first foreign policy speech, US President Joe Biden announced the end of US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a halt to arms sales to the kingdom, in a reversal of former President Donald Trump’s policy of providing logistical assistance and selling huge amounts of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. Riyad has led a coalition in support of the government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, in a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

While the US shift in policy poses a challenge for Saudi Arabia, it also creates an opportunity for Pakistan to get its relationship with Saudi Arabia back on track. Earlier, Riyadh pressured Islamabad not to be part of the game being played by Iran, Turkey and Malaysia to divide the Muslim Ummah by creating a new bloc to rival the Saudi-led 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). According to the Interpreter, as it feels the heat of a new administration in Washington, Saudi Arabia has put the brakes on further deterioration of relations with its long-time ally Pakistan. Riyadh had already withdrawn $2 billion out of a $3 billion loan that it had extended to help Islamabad avoid a balance of payment crisis in 2018. In a move suggesting a thaw in Saudi-Pak relations, Riyadh did not withdraw its remaining $1 billion loan. Saudi Arabia has also revived the $3.2 billion deferred oil financing facility to Pakistan.

Looking to China may be the best choice left for Riyadh, amid eroding US support for the kingdom. And Pakistan could serve as a bridge bringing the two countries closer. With the shift in the Biden administration’s Middle East policy bringing Pakistan closer to Saudi Arabia and its allies, a hostile Washington could push Riyadh into China’s camp. For Riyadh, the road to Beijing goes through a friendly Islamabad. It was China – Pakistan’s close friend and strategic partner – that bailed out the South Asian nation last year after Riyadh claimed back its money ahead of schedule. There already exist grounds for strong a Sino-Saudi strategic partnership. Chinese help in developing Saudi’s nuclear programme is one important aspect. The construction of a China-backed facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore in Saudi Arabia raised concerns in Washington and Tel Aviv. The Saudi nuclear program has been moving ahead with Chinese help since 2018, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) vowed to develop nuclear weapons if Iran pursued a nuclear bomb.

Opposition to the Saudi nuclear program by the US and Israel would distance Riyadh from Washington and also bring it closer to Beijing. Oil revenues account for about two thirds of the kingdom’s exports, and China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil. Saudi Arabia does not currently enjoy the position of leading global oil producer it has in past decades, because the US and Russia are now the top oil producers in the world. And while the US does not need Saudi’s oil, China has managed to get Iranian oil at discounted rates under a strategic partnership deal with Iran. China might also consider a similar strategic partnership deal with Saudi Arabia. Tensions with China, therefore which has been the biggest buyer of Saudi oil, would not serve Saudi economic interests.

China could also help to diversify Saudi’s economy under MBS’s Vision 2030. The plan for diversification of Saudi economy has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and falling energy prices. The kingdom has witnessed a sharp decline in its oil revenues as its global oil exports have dropped to 12pc from nearly 30pc in years past. Looking to China may be the best choice left for Riyadh, amid eroding US support for the kingdom. And Pakistan could serve as a bridge bringing the two countries closer.

As a common partner of the Middle East’s archrivals – Riyadh and Tehran – China could itself become a bridge between them to resolve their bilateral differences. This would be a strategic blockbuster on China’s part that would effectively knock the US out of the equation in the Middle East. China, with a $400 billion investment in Iran and as the biggest importer of Saudi oil, could yet play the role of peacekeeper in the Middle East.

The positive signals from Saudi Arabia and Iran are especially welcome, at a time when Israel has unleashed a reign of terror against innocent Palestinians. The situation in Yemen, Syria and Iraq will also improve. It will benefit the whole world.