Saudi Arabia-Iran detente is good news for a troubled region

Saudi Arabia-Iran detente is good news for a troubled region

The Chinese-mediated deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran promises to have a positive impact on a number of conflicts (File/AFP)
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Friday’s Chinese-mediated rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran came as a pleasant surprise to most countries in the Middle East and beyond. Such a diplomatic breakthrough is a rare event in a region plagued by endemic crises. It is a deal between two major regional players that promises to impact, in a positive way, on a number of conflicts.

The fact that China brought the two countries together carries a number of key messages. Beijing can be described as an honest and neutral broker. It has no colonial history in the region and its contribution to the region’s development and growth cannot be discounted. While Iran and China have been forging an economic and political alliance for years, it is Riyadh’s outreach to China, India and Russia that has distinguished Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in recent years. That outreach is paying dividends.

It is also normal and expected that China is looking to bolster its political influence in this region to match its economic presence. The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran under its sponsorship underlines the need for this region to have a multipolar presence.

Iraq and Oman have also played a key role in bringing the two Gulf powerhouses to the negotiation table after a seven-year rift. Saudi Arabia and Iran held at least six rounds of talks in Baghdad over the last two years. Few expected a breakthrough to happen so soon. To say that Riyadh and Tehran had a tense relationship over the last few decades is an understatement. But in recent years, it was Iran’s controversial meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, as well as other countries in the region, that forced Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic ties in 2016.

Now, the two have agreed to reopen embassies and normalize ties in all sectors. The agreement will have a positive impact on the region’s security and stability.

The new-found detente has shocked the Israeli political establishment, which has been working on two related fronts: bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords and further isolating Iran, while threatening to launch an airstrike against its nuclear sites. Both objectives have suffered as a result of Friday’s agreement. Israeli politicians traded accusations over what they saw as a major setback for their country.

The deal sends a strong message that no country in the region, aside from Israel, wants to see a new military conflict erupt

Osama Al-Sharif

The agreement will deepen Israel’s internal political crisis over its government’s proposed judicial overhaul and will also add to its growing isolation as its far-right coalition carries out an open war against the Palestinians while rejecting a political settlement.

Certainly, the agreement undermines Israeli-US efforts to build a regional security alliance against Iran. The deal sends a strong message that no country in the region, aside from Israel, wants to see a new military conflict erupt. The deal could encourage other countries to seek to normalize ties with Tehran. Such an occurrence would limit Iran’s appetite to pursue its regional agenda.

Washington, which cautiously welcomed the deal, has also been taken aback by the fact that China, of all countries, took credit for scoring what can only be described as a major diplomatic victory for Beijing and its leader Xi Jinping, who has built strong ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The timing of the deal is yet another indicator that the US’ role and influence in the region is under threat. Washington only has itself to blame. Its policies in the region, especially in the last two decades, have brought misery to the people of the Middle East.

Even the Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration regarded as its most prominent foreign policy achievement, have failed to end the core of the region’s instability, which is the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Now, the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is expected to set in motion a number of processes to end or at least de-escalate regional conflicts and proxy wars. Iranian media outlets have said that the agreement will help bring a political settlement to Yemen’s long war. Ending that war, which has turned Yemen into a failed state and displaced millions, would be the most important outcome of the detente between the two regional rivals. That alone would be seen as a major factor in bringing peace and stability to the Gulf region.

But the path toward full normalization and cooperation will be long and difficult. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the agreement underscores the joint desire by both sides to “resolve disputes through communication and dialogue.” However, he added: “This does not mean that an agreement has been reached to resolve all pending disputes between them.” Much will depend on Iran’s readiness to negotiate in good faith. Any breakthrough will pave the way for further discussions that could include Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

China’s success in mediating the agreement will be welcomed by the region’s leaders and people. The Middle East has seen its worst conflicts festering as the US boasted about the region being its sphere of influence. Today, its leaders are looking elsewhere for inspiration and help in conflict resolution.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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