The Saudi-Iranian contacts that began last month in secrecy have gained gravitas. The unannounced trip to Jeddah on Monday by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the exceptional courtesies he received, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman greeting him at the airport, calls attention to the winds of change sweeping the Persian Gulf region.
Sheikh Tamim had returned to Doha by the crack of dawn on Tuesday, but it was a substantive visit.
The emir was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, while a galaxy of Saudi princes and high officials were present at the talks, including minister of state and cabinet member Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Fahd; Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman; Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan; and minister of state, cabinet member and National Security Adviser Dr Musaed bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
Last weekend, in an interview with Al Jazeera, the Qatari foreign minister said: “We welcome any dialogue or efforts and a positive spirit related to relations between Iran and the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, and we support such efforts and believe that dialogue is a constructive step toward the stability of the region.”
Earlier, in an interview with Bloomberg TV in January, the Qatari foreign minister was more explicit, expressing hope that a summit between leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran would happen.
He said: “I think this is also a desire being shared among the other GCC countries … also from the Iranian side. They have expressed their willingness several times to engage with the GCC countries.”
Since then, both the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers have visited Doha, in late March on successive days.
Tehran has warmed to the idea of inclusive dialogue. It is in this backdrop that Iran confirmed publicly on Monday that it was in talks with Saudi Arabia.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the talks focused on bilateral and regional issues. He added: “The two countries and the region are interested in reducing tensions and hope to reach a meaningful understanding that will help change the atmosphere.”
Significantly, this is an exclusively regional initiative. The US assistant secretary of state for the region, Joey Hood, speaking at an event on Monday at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, acknowledged that “it is very important to have open dialogue to try to get things de-escalated” and Washington supported the Saudi-Iranian talks, but “we don’t have anything to do with them.”
This echoed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s noncommittal stance early this month when he told the Financial Times: “If they’re talking, I think that’s generally a good thing. Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That’s another question.
“But talking, trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there’s a modus vivendi, trying to get countries to take actions on things they’re doing that you don’t like – that’s good, that’s positive.”
Blinken sounded unhappy and somewhat irritated. His words reflect the reality that the US is a mere passive bystander while the two powerhouses in the Gulf region are drawing close – and one of them has been Washington’s client state for almost 80 years while the other is an archetypal enemy for the past 40 years.
Blinken betrayed the waning influence of Washington in West Asia – although the White House keeps insisting that “America is back.”
A distrust of American intentions
The Saudi-Iranian drive to normalize ties is motivated primarily by the two sides’ deep distrust of American intentions. The US-Saudi alliance is in an impasse and Riyadh no longer trusts the US as a provider of security.
As for Tehran, the regional climate is conducive for advancing its long-held belief that regional security issues are best handled by the regional states without outside interference.
The breakdown of the decades-old US policy of exploiting the frictions in the Gulf to sell weapons and keep the local regimes on a tight leash is self-evident. The Joe Biden administration’s focus on engaging Iran is a wake-up call for Riyadh and other Gulf Arab regimes.
Having said that, it must be understood that the Gulf regimes are far from staging a mutiny. The petrodollar continues to lubricate the Western banking system and the wealthy sheikhs hold extensive assets, personal and otherwise, in Western countries. Nonetheless, they see greater logic in normalizing relations with Iran so as to be in sync with the international community.
Besides, the Saudis realize that engagement with Iran could increase Riyadh’s capacity to maneuver and create space to negotiate with the US. Above all, the Saudis would like to be on the right side of history, as US-Iran engagement holds the potential to galvanize conflict resolution in the “hotspots” in the region – Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Nonetheless, it is a refreshing sight that diplomacy is on the ascendance in regional politics. Turkish Foreign Minister Mahmut Cavusoglu arrived in Riyadh on Monday on a three-day visit – the first high-level Turkish official visit to Riyadh since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is “almost certain” to travel to the United Arab Emirates this week, which will be the first of its kind in the past five years. Again, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief met with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus last week in another sign of the broad push toward lowering the temperature in the region.
Push to normalize relations
Succinctly put, Saudi Arabia is charting its own course rather than merely sub-serving or harmonizing with Washington’s regional strategies. Credit must be given to the Saudi crown prince for having gone the extra league to convey his desire to normalize with Tehran. Prince Mohammad said in a recent interview with Al-Arabiya TV:
“At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring country. All we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow, as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world.”
Tehran has agonized over whether this is a mere tactical shift due to a combination of circumstances – growing friction in US-Saudi relations, acute need for Riyadh to take Iran’s help to navigate a face-saving Saudi exit from the Yemeni war, the United States’ return to the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of US sanctions against Iran, etc – or a genuine conviction in Riyadh that co-existence with Iran is in its strategic interests.
The fact remains that unlike the Gulf Arab regimes, Iran is an Islamic republic founded on revolutionary principles, and that remains an immutable reality.
A reset of Saudi-Iran ties will take time. Herein lies the weak spot, as variables come into play. Fundamentally, the regional balance is tilting in favor of Iran as its integration into the world economy accelerates.
In turn, Iran’s surge as a regional power will demand a lot of adjustment on the part of the regional states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the fizz has gone out of Abraham Accords.
All things considered, a US retrenchment from West Asia is not to be expected, as Washington fears that it might only open new opportunities for China and allow Russia to consolidate its regional standing further. Blinken’s remarks suggest that the US doesn’t think that a Saudi-Iranian reset is a done thing yet.
These are early days and the US could always work its way back to the center stage by creating new contradictions in Gulf security. The Saudi succession may turn out to be an inflection point, as President Biden has let his aversion toward the crown prince be known.
The Biden administration’s blanket support for Israel over the latter’s attack on Palestinians and its desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a clear indication that nothing much has changed in Washington’s mindset.
Israel’s clout with the US elite remains intact. And Israel will ensure that the US keeps its dominance in the Gulf, no matter what it takes.
The point is, West Asia is not only about arms exports, petrodollars and terrorism, but a vital region that intersects with the Asian Century. It is a regional hub for China’s Belt and Road; it is where the US dollar’s pre-eminence as the world currency could be seriously challenged; and, of course, roughly half of China’s imported crude oil originated from nine Middle Eastern nations in 2019.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.