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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

What to expect from Iran-Saudi Arabia relationship refresh

March 14, 2023

The two long-time foes say they will improve their relationship. If they do, the detente could have a major impact on politics in the Middle East.

China's top diplomat Wang Yi, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing
Saudi Arabia's national security adviser (l.) met with counterparts from China (c.) and Iran in Beijing earlier this monthImage: CHINA DAILY via REUTERS

For many observers of the region, the announcement came as a surprise. After years of rivalry and tensions, Saudi Arabia and Iran apparently want to start a new phase in their relationship.

The decision is one that could have both regional and international impacts because in many areas and on many fronts, the two nations are opponents and have squared off against one another, both indirectly and directly.

The two countries have supported opposing parties to various conflicts: for example, in Syria during the civil war there, and to this day in the war in Yemen. In Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, they have become involved in local politics on opposing sides. According to the Saudi leadership, Iran is responsible for some of the rocket attacks on its oil facilities in the Persian Gulf.

A new chapter

Yet now Saudi Arabia and Iran say they want to open a new chapter on their relationship.

There are good reasons for both to do so. In their attacks on one another, they are hurting themselves more than their foe — and in both political and economic terms. Additionally, neither side has been able to gain any real supremacy over the other.

This realization is not something new. Two years ago, representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran were already negotiating behind closed doors, recalled Sebastian Sons, a senior researcher and Saudi Arabia expert at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a German think tank.  At the same time, it's still true that the Saudis don't trust the Iranians, he said.

"But that is exactly why the Saudi leadership is being forced to come to an arrangement with Iran," he explained. "An agreement is of the highest priority for the [Saudi] kingdom."

Tehran apparently sees things similarly. The new deal is a diplomatic success for the Iranians, said Marcus Schneider, who heads the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Regional Peace and Security Project in Beirut. "For the [Iranian] regime, it's a step out of international isolation at a time when its relations with the West are worsening, going from one low point to the next," Schneider told DW.

Americans out

The increasing international isolation has certainly made a difference to Iran's attitude. Given this, another factor to Iran's liking is that the Chinese apparently helped to broker this new detente.

China's relationship with Western nations has also been deteriorating lately. Brokering this new relationship establishes China as a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East, Schneider told DW. "It also serves Tehran's interests in that it drives the Americans out of the region, or at least reduces their influence," the Beirut-based expert continued.

Chinese relations with Iran have been good for some time now. In early 2021, both sides signed a trade deal that would see China invest around $400 billion (€372 billion) there over the next 25 years. 

A helicopter lifts off of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as it transits the Strait of Hormuz..
The US has sent aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf as a result of increased tensions with IranImage: Stephanie Contreras/U.S. Navy/AP Photo/picture alliance

Meanwhile, the Saudis have been hedging their bets and turning away from their traditional ally, the US, for the past few years. American leaders have been critical of the Saudis' human rights record and were perceived as not being supportive enough when oil facilities were attacked, allegedly by Yemeni rebels firing Iranian-made rockets.

Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it won't necessarily do the US' bidding. For example, last September, at a meeting of oil producing nations in the OPEC+ group, the Saudis chose not to do as the US had asked and did not lobby to increase production to bring down oil prices.

That doesn't indicate that the Saudis are planning a complete change of course or breaking away from Western partners altogether, Sons noted: "But you have to see that rapprochement with Iran is a very high priority in Riyadh."

Destabilizing factors

The fact that these two rival nations say they will become friendlier may lead to positive consequences in the Middle East.

Iran might pull back as a destabilizing force in the region, Schneider suggested. In neighboring Iraq, Iran supports militia groups that have a large, disruptive influence on the local government. In Lebanon, Iran supports the organization Hezbollah, which also plays a meaningful role in that country's politics. Iran may decide to agitate less via these proxies.

The new Saudi-Iranian detente may also finally see the war in Yemen coming to some kind of end. Iran supports the Houthi rebels in that country, while Saudi Arabia has led a coalition against them. The hopeless nature of that war seems to have become clear to the Saudis, who desire a resolution either in the form of an end to fighting or, at the very least, much less of it. For this to happen, the warring parties inside Yemen would also have to agree to a new cease-fire, and only time will tell whether they are willing to do so.

 Yemeni police inspect a site of Saudi-led airstrikes targeting two houses in Sanaa, Yemen, .
The devastating war in Yemen might end if Iran and Saudi Arabia get closerImage: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo/picture alliance

The situation is different with regard to Israel, a country that Iran often threatens. In 2020, Israel signed the so-called Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, also countries that see Iran as an enemy. Saudi Arabia has yet to agree to any such normalization with Israel, even as it quietly improves relations with the latter behind the scenes.

It is possible that the new relationship between the Saudis and Iranians has come about because of how what is known as the Iran nuclear deal has been developing, Schneider explained. After years of trying to come to an arrangement with Iran that would see the country abandoning any attempt to produce its own nuclear weapons in return for sanctions being lifted, the deal increasingly looks impossible.    

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords at the White House.
The so-called Abraham Accords were brokered by the USImage: Alex Wong/Getty Images

"If an Israeli-US military strike against Iran were to happen, the Gulf states might be the first victims of Iranian retaliation," Schneider suggested. "Past attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure would then only be a foretaste."

This way, the Saudis might escape Iranian revenge, the Qatar-connected publication Al Araby Al-Jadeed wrote on Monday.

The new detente also shows that the Saudis don't really have any interest in making a relationship with Israel official, said CARPO expert Sons. "Above all, Saudi Arabia currently wants to avoid any further escalation with Iran," Sons noted. 

Human rights not expected to improve

Even if certain conflicts in the Middle East were to improve as a result of the relationship refresh between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it seems unlikely that this would have much impact on the dire human rights situation in either country. The governments in both Iran and Saudi Arabia regularly commit human rights violations, imprisoning political opponents and often topping human rights organizations' lists of wrongdoing in everything from repressing local media freedom to capital punishment.

The country that mediated between the two nations — China — is also often criticized by human rights activists. Questions of human rights will "definitely not play a role" in either Iran or Saudi Arabia amid the relationship refresh, Sons concluded. 

What are Saudi Arabia and Iran hoping to gain?

This article was translated from German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East