Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia entered a new phase after 1979. Even before the revolution, the Persian-Arab divide was already prevalent, but after the Iranian Revolution, religious and ideological aspects became more prominent. Both in the Middle East and West Asia, Iran and Saudi Arabia remained in opposing camps, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. As per reports and media coverage, Saudi Arabia supported Saddam and the Taliban, while Iran went into direct confrontation with both of these entities.
With the inception of the 21st century, proxy wars between the two states had already been unfolding across various states in the Middle East, intensifying after the Arab Spring of 2011. As Saudi Arabia was apprehensive of the potential spillover, Iran termed the 2011 Arab unrest the “Islamic Awakening”. However, relations eventually deteriorated after the execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr by the Saudi authorities in 2016 and the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran.
Saudi-Iran Regional Competition
Since the diplomatic standoff, both states have made attempts to assert their influence in the region, which has influenced Middle Eastern politics, particularly in the case of Yemen.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran gained the upper hand owing to its military assistance to the respective governments in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This assistance was transformed into Iran’s political leverage over these countries. Not only was Iran able to defeat ISIS in these states, but it also managed to withstand the pressure of other external actors. Despite western and Gulf discontent with the Assad regime in Syria, Iranian support alongside Russia proved pivotal in consolidating Assad’s power. Similarly, in the post-ISIS period, despite political turmoil, Iran emerged as the largest trading partner of Iraq, which translated into its influence in the country as well. However, Iranian victories in these states came at an economic cost.
Regarding Iraq, the post-war reconstruction was largely hampered because of a lack of funds. For that, Iraq requires support from the Gulf states. Similarly, in Lebanon, Iran’s influence through Hezbollah is paramount, which is a source of concern for Saudi Arabia. For this, Saudi Arabia brought his ambassador back from Lebanon and also imposed a ‘blanket ban’ on Lebanese imports that crippled the latter’s banking sector. To overcome the crisis, Lebanon requires financial assistance from Saudi Arabia. Lastly, in the case of Yemen, the war has transformed it into the ‘worst humanitarian crisis’ of the 21st century, in which Iran is speculated to be the supporter of the Houthis while Saudi Arabia backs the Yemeni government. Therefore, the analysis of the geopolitical and regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia suggests that, in order to resolve the impending regional crisis, a rapprochement between these two regional powers is inevitable.
Role of Global Powers
Global powers increasingly invested in the Middle East after 2014–15 due to its vast energy resources, security significance, and strategic location.
In the case of the United States (US), although it has shifted its focus to containing China, the Middle East still remains a major area of concern where the US aims to strengthen its regional allies in the post-ISIS era. In pursuance of this objective, the US initiated a peace drive between its regional allies, i.e., the Gulf states and Israel, which was later called the ‘Abraham Accords’. The US further institutionalized the alliance through the formation of I2U2, which includes the US, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and India. Both of these developments serve two primary purposes for the US. One is to minimize its engagement in the Middle East, while the second is to counter the threats to the US and its allies in the region.
Russia, on the other hand, remained a relatively marginal player. While it continued its strategic cooperation with Iran and opposed US policies in the region, its military and political engagement remained limited to the Levant region, particularly inside Syria. Russia did not participate in any other regional affairs, and it avoided taking sides in inter-state conflicts. Syria remained the only exception, as it is the only regional ally Russia has had since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since the very beginning, China has always adopted a silent approach towards the Middle East. Most of its interactions remained limited to its energy needs. However, as China went global through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, the Middle East gained significance in China’s foreign policy. China developed a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”—the highest form of Chinese engagement—with five Middle Eastern states. Furthermore, the Middle East is also important for China’s Maritime Silk Route, particularly due to the presence of two chokepoints: Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. While these chokepoints are crucial for maritime trade in China, they are also the arenas where geopolitical rivalries take place. For that very purpose, China established its first-ever foreign military base in Djibouti to secure its trade passing through the Bab el Mandeb. Hence, the resolution of conflicts became a priority for China, which prompted it to rejuvenate its role in the region.
Regional Drive for Peace
The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US came as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia. Not only did Saudi Arabia manage to strike a $110 billion arms deal, but Trump’s anti-Iran policies made him a natural ally of Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, with Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, Saudi Arabia’s ties are somewhat cold. It’s because of Biden’s campaign promise to reassess military and political ties with Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the Biden push for greater oil production was also turned down by Saudi Arabia amidst the Ukraine War. Therefore, the personal ties that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, shared with Trump couldn’t be replicated with Biden, which resulted in a lack of external support for the former.
Secondly, within the Gulf states, a sense of disunity prevailed. Foremost was the diplomatic standoff between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar in 2017. Qatar’s economic might and its investments worldwide allowed it to withstand the blockade. Furthermore, disagreement also prevailed amongst the GCC states over the Yemen War and the cut on oil production, which was spearheaded by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This resulted in a loss of revenues for the UAE. Adding to that is the renewed status of the UAE in global and regional circumstances. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has relations with both Iran and Israel. UAE is also making its imprints in the technological sector, as its Barakah Nuclear Power Plant became the first-ever nuclear plant in the Arabian Peninsula (2019), and it has also become the fourth country to launch its own Mars Mission (2020). Lastly, the UAE also resumed its diplomatic ties with Syria in 2022 after 11 long years. These developments enhanced the UAE’s status within the region and beyond.
Third, Iran faced increasing pressure from domestic factors owing to persistently exacerbating economic situations. Most of the protests inside Iran in the past few years were driven by the worsening economic situation, rise in inflation, unemployment, US sanctions, and devaluation of the Iranian currency. Under these circumstances, there was a debate going on that Iran should focus on internal economic restructuring and minimize its role in the region, which would put an extra burden on the Iranian economy. Therefore, there was a dire need for Iran as well to end the proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and for that, the negotiations with rival Saudi Arabia were paramount.
In these circumstances, the ceasefire in Yemen is a good step that could resolve the outstanding disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Yemen War is currently the most active conflict in the region, and its resolution would allow both Saudi Arabia and Iran to utilize it as a goodwill gesture for the resumption of diplomatic ties.
This would also allow both countries to jointly manage the economic and political crises in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, which could be transformed into a regional drive for peace.
Opportunities for Pakistan
The Saudi-Iran rapprochement, mediated by China, took the entire world by surprise. However, the phenomenon was not entirely out of the blue. Rather, in the background, the negotiations have already been going on. Pakistan has offered time and again its mediation role between the two states to resolve issues within the larger Muslim world. In 2016, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed the mediatory role of Pakistan as a ‘sacred mission’. In 2019, ex-premier Imran Khan visited both countries in an attempt at reconciliation between the two rivals. Nonetheless, despite various attempts, the deadlock prevailed. Another hope for peace talks was manifested at the Jordan Summit in December 2022, where the foreign ministers of both Iran and Saudi Arabia met on the sidelines to defuse regional tensions. Nonetheless, the ultimate broker that emerged was China. As both Iran and Saudi Arabia have now agreed on resuming diplomatic relations over the course of the next two months, Pakistan has an opportunity to revive its Middle Eastern policy.
Pakistan’s Middle Eastern policy and foreign policy as a whole have always been pivoted towards neutrality, especially when the rival parties are Muslim countries. However, it’s a fact that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are of a strategic nature and encompass security, political, and economic ties. On the other hand, Pakistan’s close ties with Iran are also a geopolitical reality owing to similar interests in combating border terrorism and advocating for political stability inside Afghanistan.
As Iran and Saudi Arabia have now agreed to resolve their issues, Pakistan can practically implement its much-cherished neutral foreign policy and could come out of the ‘balancing’ dilemma.
Furthermore, as Pak-GCC ties became somewhat strained as Pakistan remained neutral on the Yemen issue, this downward trajectory in bilateral ties could be overturned as well, which could subsequently result in creeping out economic advantages for Pakistan.
However, energy imports from Iran would most likely continue to be a tough nut to crack. It is because of the US sanctions against Iran and the so-far indecisive talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) revival, which have little to do with Saudi-Iran rapprochement. Nevertheless, there is a hope that since one of the US’s allies, Saudi Arabia, has normalized its relations with Iran, which the US has welcomed, the JCPOA talks could be more optimistically pursued, which would allow Pakistan to diversify its energy channels.
Lastly, it is imperative to consider China. The US is pursuing its policy of containing China, for which India has been given pivotal status in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and I2U2. While India’s intention and capability of countering China are dubious, these minilateral frameworks have boosted India’s own image. For example, in the Middle East, India’s inroads have been more smooth and institutionalized. India is consolidating its energy, economic, political, and defense ties with the Gulf states. With Israel, India has been striking deals related to technology, arms imports, and port development. However, as China reaffirms its position in the Middle East by becoming an alternative to the US, Pakistan can find ample space to revive its regional role as well as countercheck India. This can be done by exploring economic opportunities through human resources and providing investment prospects in return.
Pakistan needs to practically play a constructive role in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is absolutely non-functional given the Saudi-Iran rift. This would help Pakistan institutionalize its status within the Middle East and present the Kashmir cause with more enthusiasm and effectiveness. Finally, it should be noted that the issues of the Middle East can be best addressed by the regional countries alone or by a global power acting as an external actor. Therefore, Pakistan must be cautious about not directly involving itself in regional issues but rather providing its diplomatic goodwill by facilitating the process of peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.