Saudi-Iran rapprochement: prospects for the region and Pakistan

Ali Hassan Hussaini

After the diplomatic hiatus of around seven years, the reginal rivals-the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have finally melted down the rocky mountain of animosity under the auspices of China’s brokered agreement on March 10, 2023 in Beijing. This eventual day materialized as a result of under-the-ground working from the past two years between China and the regional rivals-Saudi and Iran. Having a smile on their faces, the officials from both states pledged to reopen the embassy and consulates in their respective states. This inimitable rapprochement has jolted the tectonic plates across the globe, especially in the US and Israel. Therefore, behind this detente, there is much to be explored and disclosed to have a thorough understanding of this development and its possible prospects for the region and Pakistan.

The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran went into an abyss immediately after the execution of prominent Shia scholar, the hyper-critic of the House of Saud and incumbent government, Nimr al-Nimr, in 2016 by Saudi authorities. His execution led to violent protests and mob attacks on Saudi embassy and consulates in Tehran and other cities. Both Iran and Kingdom, being the perpetual enemies, compelled to close down their diplomatic missions thereafter. Entangled with long-lasting conflicting interests, their precocious drive towards becoming friendly neighbors has astonished the global powers. The world is skeptically looking at the recent development which is typically uncommon and unforeseen in the historic relations of both the arch rivals since 1979. The Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran antagonized the west and so did follow the Arabs states as they landed themselves into the American camp. Hence, in the following years, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran drifted away not by sectarian rift as majority of the western scholars blindly believe, but merely due to the geopolitical considerations. Post-1979, Iran came on the radar of the USA owing to Islamic revolution and consequently pushed Saudis to becoming the strategic-partner and making the Petro-dollar collusion- natural outcomes.

Commenting on the recent détente, various international scholars concur upon three major shifts, occurring in the world, as the primary causal factors to bringing together the two warring nations on a negotiating table. The first one on which many political commentators agree, like Anna Jacobs, political analyst, Gulf States, is the diminishing role of the United States in the global affairs, especially in the Gulf States. For instance, 2019 drone attacks on oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia by Iran-inspired Houthis have opened the eyes of Kingdom’s leadership, MBS when he saw the lax response by the US authorities. Not to mention this, the silence adopted by the USA, a beacon- bearer of human rights, on the flagrant violation of human rights in illegally occupied Kashmir and Palestine clearly indicates the priorities of the super-power, noted down by Maleeha Lodhi in her article in the DAWN. Most importantly, the persistent threat posed by America to KSA is security dilemma. The American leadership, like former President Donald Trump, threatened Saudi leadership for not surviving only two weeks, if America has not been the savior. This threatening tone and type of security ambit the US provides have convinced the crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) to take the Kingdom out of the existential threat of betrayal. Therefore, it has become evident from above events that the American power is sinking deep into the ocean.

Second reason behind narrowing down the differences between the regional opponents is China’s entry into the world arena. This seems quite convincing as we look at the role China is playing in connecting the global economies through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Brazilian journalist and author, Pepe Escobar, writes in “The Cradle”, that the recent development is largely a “china’s win-win” situation and “diplomatic victory” because this would help her in stabilizing the global energy markets. The success behind the agreement is also attributed to the apolitical role played by the Chinese Republic in the past. Due to its non-interference into other countries’ affairs and with no colonial baggage has given her a cutting edge in making such deals into fruition. Were it the United States it would not have been the unbiased negotiator in the said dispute maintained by the writer in her column published in the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. So, the non-political postures and having no political interests in the conflicts going on in the world promoted China as a best broker in lowering down the temperatures among middle eastern nations.

Third biggest reason for recent collaboration between decades-old opponents is the emergence of new global order, based on multilateralism unlike the unilateralism propagated by the so-called sole superpower, USA, post-world war-II. In this regard, two events are sufficient to prove the above claim. The first event is the incapacity of the US-led word order to restore the order and thwart chaos in the Ukraine after the unlawful attack by the Russia. This invasion has eroded the concept of the territorial sovereignty of independent nations as the US seems to be handicapped in persuading the nations to sever their ties with Putin government.  Second point is related to the events that are predominantly related to the economic structure. After the failure of gold-dollar equation based on Bretton-Woods system of converting the gold value in to dollar, the Petro-dollar system is also failing. According to a report by the Crisis Group, “The impact of Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement on Middle East Conflicts”, many nations have been collaborating to initiate their bilateral trade in their own currencies instead of depending on the US dollar.  The recent agreements between China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brazil, and Russia are few examples to quote are the successful agreements. In the wake of this, The KSA along with UAE has also agreed to sell petrol to PRC in yuan. Hence, USA has become unsuccessful in maintaining political as well as economic order promoter by her in the past across the globe.

As we have thoroughly analyzed the rapprochement at length, let’s have an insight into the prospects for the region and Pakistan. Regionally, this deal will enhance the bilateral relations between the two giants in the Middle East. The amicable relation between KSA and Iran would definitely promote the peace in region on the one hand and stabilize the energy markets on the other hand. This has been visible in the evacuation of people from Sudan. As per the report of Reuters, Saudi Navi evacuated 65 Iranians from Sudan port to Jeddah and then to Iran recently. Likewise, reopening of embassies and the visit by Saudi trade delegation to Iran recently is one-step forward in improving the relations between both states. Furthermore, Saudi crown prince has also invited the Iranian President, Ibrahim Raisi to Riyaz, to which Iran has reciprocated in a same manner. Besides these, their friendly relations, as asserted by the editor of Aljazeera will also help in reducing the shia-suuni schism across the Gulf states in the future, Therefore, the cordial relation between them have positive prospects for region, especially for the security of energy-rich Middle East.

In a similar way,  significant benefits can be expected for Pakistan too from the Saudi-Iran rapprochement. Since Pakistan is a long-standing partner of KSA, an immediate neighbor of Iran and the strategic-partner of China, Pakistan has massive opportunities to cater. As Saudi is an economic power, Pakistan can boost its trade volume with the former to correct its down sliding economy. Moreover, a great number of Pakistani diaspora is living in the Kingdom, whose remittances from Saudi and Gulf states account for about 58 percent of the total, will boost the currency inflow as per the latest data of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). Second most benefit for Pakistan could be the secure and timely completion of Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline. It is due on the country a to complete its construction part timely in order to avoid the penalty of 18 billion dollar emanating from bilateral agreement in case of failure to accomplish. Last but not least, the improved relations between shia-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia will generate the peaceful atmosphere for Pakistani authorities to deal with the shia-sunni clashes in future.

In a nutshell, Saudi-Iran conflict has been the area of focus for the world from quiet of time. The issue between the Middle East neighboring countries has been deep rooted in the geopolitical realities. However, western scholars and analysts always camouflaged this as Shia-Sunni conflict. The reality has bitter truth, however; take an example of Yemen based Sunni Houthis who are inspired by Iran’s covert military political support. Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic Sunni fundamentalist organization also derives its inspirations from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Against this social organization, Saudi Arabia has been vocal in favor of Israel. Having such baggage of unfortune history, the leadership of both countries have shed away their stubbornness and have promised to cooperate for the welfare of citizens. So, in a recent meeting, they have vowed to revitalize the Security Cooperation Agreement of 2001 and the General Agreement for Cooperation, 1998, in various fields such as trade, sports, technology and investment. Thus, their détente has positive omen for the region related to its enhanced security and economic prosperity. Also, it can be extremely beneficial for Pakistan for its economic viability, gas pipeline completion, and religious harmony among its populace.


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