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Saudi-Iran detente could save the Arab world from another decade of strife

As the two states engage in talks, they must end the hostile rhetoric and realise that the main security threats they each face are domestic
The Saudi-Iran rivalry has polarised the Gulf and Arab region (MEE)

The tense and hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that have poisoned peace between the two countries but also polarised the Gulf and Arab region are showing signs of improvement. But despite four recent meetings in Baghdad and another in New York, it would be premature to jump to the conclusion that the two arch-rivals are on their way to ending decades of tensions and rivalry. 

The best outcome would be to stop the hostile rhetoric, resume official diplomacy, and launch new trade agreements that could help both economies during very difficult times. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in talks for months, with a view to reversing their mutual hostility and antagonism. According to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, the latest round of talks has been “cordial”. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a regional rivalry to pacify, contain and impress their own domestic audiences

But the talks remain shrouded in secrecy, likely pointing to slow progress - if any. In addition to recent news about a resumption of trade relations and positive signs with regards to the diplomatic missions in Tehran and Riyadh that have been closed since 2016, several files are in need of agreement, related to regional affairs that both countries have used for their own domestic purposes. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a regional rivalry to pacify, contain and impress their own domestic audiences. This conflict has sought to project power regionally while silencing dissent at home. 

Silencing criticism

Saudi Arabia has trumpeted the external Iranian threat to silence criticism of the Saudi leadership, clamp down on internal dissent, and create an atmosphere of fear and apprehension.

Two years ago Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) threatened to take the battle deep inside Iran, which has long stood accused of arming the Yemeni Houthis on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

MBS wanted to score a victory over Iran in Yemen and to emerge as the warrior who worked to end Iranian expansion in the Arab world. But these pledges have not translated into reality, and the crown prince is now being forced to sit at the negotiating table, seeking Iranian help to end a war that has destroyed Yemen, drained Saudi resources, and failed to crown him as the undisputed military hero. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has clamped down on dissent domestically (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has clamped down on dissent domestically (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)

If the crown prince is in a perpetual war with "an expansionist Islamic republic" and "Shia rival" which backs militias determined to undermine Saudi security so close to its borders, then he can convince Saudis that they are fighting an eternal war and an existential threat. This would justify spending billions of dollars on armaments at a time of decreasing oil prices, tax increases, and Houthi missiles and drones capable of reaching the most important Saudi oil facilities

On Iran’s side, it suits the leadership to convince Iranians that they are surrounded by hostile countries endowed with enormous oil wealth that, with US help, could launch a war on Iranian soil. 

Like the Saudis, Iran has used the alleged threat posed by Saudi Arabia to appease an agitated population, which has suffered hardships and economic shortages under one of the most punitive sanctions regimes imposed by the US and its allies. While Saudi Arabia could never fight Iran on its own, its close military ties with the US make it an easy enemy at which to point the finger.

Legitimate grievances

In the past, Iran has capitalised on the grievances of the Saudi Shia population, and eventually cut diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in 2016. It projected an image of itself as the guardian of Shia interests, showing solidarity with its co-religionists, to the annoyance of Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia used this Iranian solidarity to crack down on its own Shia dissidents, who had legitimate grievances, under the pretext that they were Iranian clients - a fifth column among Sunni Muslims in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. 

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Iran has criticised Saudi Arabia’s handling of the Hajj pilgrimage, with many voices calling for the holy city of Mecca to be removed from Saudi guardianship and to become a Muslim Vatican, administered by a council of Muslims. This would take away from Saudi Arabia its crown jewel, which no Saudi king would countenance.

This political rivalry has been clothed in sectarian rhetoric, exaggerating the Sunni-Shia divide on both sides and fuelling sectarian hatred and violence. 

Successful talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran should start by resolving a fundamental issue: both countries should stop using their rivalry to appease domestic audiences, and turn their attention to real political reforms. Only this will succeed in normalising relations between two countries, despite their own regional ambitions and differences. Saudi Arabia and Iran could still pursue their own national interests, but not as a zero-sum game. 

Rival countries can coexist in peace if they strengthen their own domestic fronts. Saudi Arabia and Iran must come to understand that domestically, they are both fragile regimes, and the main security threats are internal. This realisation could save them and the rest of the Arab world from another decade of tensions, clandestine intrigues, hostilities or even proxy wars. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Madawi al-Rasheed
Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr