A shift in Saudi Foreign Policy?

By Hussain Abid & Sajid Ali

There is increasing indication that a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is imminent. Such indications are given credence with the announcement of Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif that after Haj (Muslim Pilgrimage) diplomatic visits could possibly be exchanged by both countries. Earlier Iraqi Interior Minister, Qasim al-Araji had claimed that during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Iraq was asked to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reportedly Saudi Arabia is ready to accept conditions of Iran and the latter has hinted a positive response. However, the tensions between the two parties began to diminish when newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun visited Saudi Arabia; after his visit, Saudi Arabia decreased its oil production, much to the benefit of Iran.

One important development in this regard was the announcement of Iranian foreign ministry that a Saudi diplomatic delegation would visit Iran after Eid to assess the progress of work on the restoration of its embassy in Tehran, which was gutted down in response to the execution of famous Shia religious leader, Sheikh Nimr, by Saudi Arabia.

Despite denial by certain quarters from both sides that any positive diplomatic development has taken place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the flurry of diplomatic activities defies this.

The Saudi visit of Iraqi foreign minister and prime minister was followed by Muqtada al-Sadr meeting Saudi high officials and the warm meeting between Saudi foreign minister Adil Jubeir and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, which a Turkish media outlet attributed to an initiative on the part of Adul Jabir; all these developments indicate that these are planned meetings arranged by diplomats of both countries.

It is important to remember that Adil Jubeir visited Iraq in February this year, the first by any Saudi government high official since 1990. Moreover, in August both countries opened their borders after a long period of nearly 27 years. Russian foreign minister, too, has called for a conference under its aegis to help in the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It is also reported in certain quarters that America clearly sees the failure of its Middle East policy generally and its Syrian policy specifically and grudgingly recognizes the increasing clout of the new budding alliance between Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, which goes by many names: Russian Alliance, Resistance Bloc, etc.

The realization has dawned on America that negotiations and rapprochement with its rivals would accrue much benefit and further its national security interests than just extending greater support to its allies.  This paradigm shift in American policy is visible vis-à-vis issues like Turkey, Syria, Palestine and nuclear negotiations with Iran. Even Trump administration seems to be continuing the same policies and there are less chances of any dramatic shift of policy under his watch. American administration is pursuing a likewise course on the issue of North Korea. It is evident that improving relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both holding considerable influence in Middle East, is in the interest of both Russia and America. There have also been speculations and whispers that America and Russia would act as guarantors in talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, making sure their respective allies abide by any prospective agreement.

May be it is one of the factors driving a significant change in Saudi policies towards Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria. On the other hand, no can deny the simmering unease and restlessness within Saudi Arabia; and its foreign policy fiascos, which have been continuing ever since King Salman took over. It is obvious Saudi Arabia has been keen to restore its relations with Iran, which makes sense since it was Saudi Arabia that severed its diplomatic ties with latter.

Iran had successful nuclear negotiations with P5+1 powers. It is cognizant of its great position in the region. It has a growing missile programme and holds considerable influence in Yemen, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. Moreover, it has strong ties with China, Central Asian Republics and Balkan. The successful gains in both Syria and Iraq against rebel forces and ISIS respectively make Iranian position stronger in the region. Most importantly, Syria’s eastern campaign along with Shia militias against ISIS for the first time since Syrian uprising promises the prospect of Iran having a direct geographical link from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus. Whereas, Saudi Arabia seems to be losing in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Among them the most important was Syrian front, where Saudi Arabia tried to foment a violent insurrection against Assad regime rather than facilitating a negotiated settlement between parties. It would not be wrong to assert that the case of Syria can be used as a yardstick to judge the success or otherwise of foreign policies of different regional and international actors.

When a state wants to introduce a radical political and strategic shift in its policy, it issues ambiguous and ambivalent statements to assess public opinion and the response of its rival. This is clearly reflected in Saudi Arabia’s Syrian policy. According to reports, in one of recent meetings between Saudi foreign minister and Syrian rebel forces, the former unequivocally told them that Bashir al-Assad’s rule would perpetuate and it was high time Syrian opposition forces realized this and changed their strategy according to the changing ground realities. Writing on this significant development, Economist had this to say:

Indeed, the Saudis have shifted on Syria, too. Saudi clerics used to urge on Sunni mujahideen against the supposedly heretical Alawite clan ruling Syria with their Iranian allies. Now they have toned it down, lest they be accused of abetting terrorism. Prince Muhammad is said to have stopped backing Syria’s Sunni rebels and urged their leaders in exile in Riyadh to compromise with President Bashar al-Assad’s ghastly regime.

The Saudis are still bombing northern Yemen. But there, too, they are sounding more conciliatory and keener to make a deal. Unusually, they apologized for an air-raid on Sana’a on August 25th which killed 14 civilians. A Saudi spokesman suggested reopening Sana’a’s airport and Yemen’s largest port, Hodeida, under UN auspices.

Some Saudi officials say they want to woo back Iran’s Arab allies, putting ethnicity above religion, in order to push back Iranian influence. “The more you engage with Iraqis, the less the Iranians will come,” says one. “Iraq belongs to the Arab world.”

The Economist concludes its article with this insightful observation:

Some Saudi officials say they want to woo back Iran’s Arab allies, putting ethnicity above religion, in order to push back Iranian influence. “The more you engage with Iraqis, the less the Iranians will come,” says one. “Iraq belongs to the Arab world.”

Some observers foresee a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, talking of a grand bargain whereby the Saudis might recognize Iran’s pre-eminence in the north of the Middle East, including Syria, in exchange for a Saudi free hand in the Gulf states and the Arabian peninsula.

But Mr Jubeir dismisses such talk as “laughable”. “When you hear honeyed words from [President Hassan] Rouhani’s government [in Iran], we see the aggressive actions of its Revolutionary Guard,” says a Saudi official, alleging Iranian-inspired terrorist plots in Kuwait and Bahrain and lamenting Iran’s meddling in Yemen.

Any progress will be difficult. The kingdom is wary of being seen to appease Iran. For Shia-dominated Iraq’s leaders to embrace the Saudis will not be easy either. Mr Sadr was lambasted at home for meeting Prince Muhammad, just when Saudi forces were levelling Awamiya, a Shia town in eastern Saudi Arabia outraged by Mr Nimr’s execution. Some Saudis, for their part, were aghast when the prince congratulated Mr Abadi for defeating Islamic State in Mosul—and clobbering the old part of one of Sunni Islam’s greatest and most beautiful cities.

Though important, no doubt, these diplomatic and political developments between Saudi and Iran and other efforts to ease tensions between regionals potentates is good news and has the potential to lead to greater stability in Middle East, but some circles take all this with a pinch of salt and raise important questions: Why would Saudi Arabia for mediation with Iran choose Iraq, where Iran has held great influence since American invasion, and not Kuwait, a member of GCC, which has maintained a delicate balance in its relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and has in the past offered its good offices for this purpose? The severing of diplomatic relations with Qatar by Saudi-led bloc was partly attributed to Qatar’s independent foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran, and they still seem to hold this line, clearly manifested in their rhetoric in a recently-concluded Arab League meeting in Cairo. This only shows Saudi intransigence to open up to Iran.

Be that as it may. The Middle East always presents a complex security and political mosaic. The regional rivalry becomes more intricate with the involvement of great powers and shifting alliances. So despite this skepticism shown in certain circles, it is not unlikely that the estranged rivals of yesterday become the bedfellows of tomorrow.

Both authors are associated with IPI’s research team. Their work focuses on Middle East.