by Gerhard Arnold, Theologian and Publisher, Middle East correspondent for this magazine, Würzburg
On 10 March 2023, senior government officials of Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed in Beijing, after mediation by Chinese leadership, to resume their diplomatic and economic relations. On 6 April, the foreign ministers of both states met for further talks, also in Beijing. Two months later, the Iranian embassy in Riyadh resumed its activities; the Saudi embassy in Tehran is to be opened later. A thaw seems to have begun between the two Persian Gulf states after seven years of extremely hostile mutual rhetoric.
A new beginning with a bang
The political rapprochement on the Saudi side had been in the offing for some time, so it was not surprising. In 2021, four rounds of talks between government representatives of both states took place in Iraq. They began immediately after an interview, sensational in many respects, that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had given to the Saudi television station Al-Arabiya in April 2021. The presenter asked him: “is there any effort to reach a settlement on the unresolved issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran?” The de facto ruler replied: “at the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring 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.” Solutions should now be found for the previous problems, the nuclear programme, missile development and support for illegal militias.
Policy change in regional conflict situations
Since he came to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has been confronted with different regional conflicts demanding to be dealt with. This was equally true for the ruling houses and governments of the Middle East region.
In 2019 and 2020, numerous critical analyses of the state of the Arab world appeared in various Arab countries. There is ongoing instability and turmoil. The region lacks a framework for collective security. Middle East expert Hafed Al-Ghwell wrote in the Arab News in August 2020 that if the Middle East wants to have a good future, it needs comprehensive reforms and a new solidarity-based cooperation. But “before that happens, the region must first grapple with its woeful realities. Civil conflicts, political intransigence and high unemployment prove that the old ways are no longer sustainable. The upper echelons of politics and society remain strangled by entrenched interests and patronage networks, which poison well-intentioned reforms via corruption and malfeasance. Existing social contracts continue to exhaust and frustrate the public as each new government proves to be as out of touch as the previous one.”
The security conflicts include the civil war in Syria since 2011, economic collapse in Lebanon since 2019, the Israel-Palestine problem, the political and economic disaster in Iraq since 2003, and the civil and militia war in Libya since 2011.
Prince Mohammed had already conceived the gigantic
“Vision 2030” in 2016, the economic, industrial and social modernisation of the kingdom. To advance these projects, which are now well underway, he needed a pacified regional environment and cooperation. For this, he can rely on “the quartet”, the group of four states with Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, pursuing common political and ideological goals.
A particular problem for Prince Mohammed was the Yemen war, in which the ruler intervened militarily with the UAE in 2015 in the deceptive hope of quickly defeating the Huthi rebels. The military conflict widened due to Iran’s military intervention. In September 2019, Saudi Arabia suffered a devastating airstrike with drones and cruise missiles on its largest oil processing facility, most likely of Iranian origin. More air strikes on Saudi infrastructure followed at short intervals. Things could not go on like this.
The Saudian course change and the US
The Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating economic impact increased the pressure on the governments of the region to find solutions and to cooperate economically.
Another development made a change of policy towards Iran without alternative: the election of Joe Biden as president of the US in autumn 2020. Harshly attacking the Saudi crown prince over the Khashoggi murder in Istanbul in October 2018, Biden’s announcement that US policy wanted to withdraw from the Middle East region and focus on China as the main adversary was irritating. Therefore, he said, he would try to revive the Iran nuclear deal – unilaterally terminated by his predecessor Donald Trump in 2018 – and dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear bomb for the near future. With this reformulation of US policy, the balance of power in the Middle East changed as the US no longer supported the group of four’s anti-Iran course and withdrew from Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman had to try a policy of understanding with Iran, while the west’s Afghanistan disaster with the ignominious withdrawal after the Taliban victory in August 2021 has further encouraged the geopolitical reorientation.
Further geopolitical reorientations
In view of the permanent conflict with Iran, the UAE wanted a reliable military and technological partner besides the US. The choice fell on Israel. Under US President Trump, the UAE together with friendly Bahrain agreed in September 2020 in Washington on the “Abraham Accords”, close cooperation and the opening of embassies.
The relationship between the group of four and Qatar was also cleared up, at least on the surface, through the mediation of US President Trump. At the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in January 2021 in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, there was a reconciliation between the crown prince and the Emir of Qatar.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership at the end of 2011 in response to the civil war atrocities. If standing on the sidelines and criticising the Assad regime had not brought about anything positive, then a realpolitik turn would have to be made, according to the Gulf state’s logic. At the end of 2018, the UAE embassy in Damascus was reopened, breaking the “front” against the Assad regime, but the major breakthrough in relations with the Syrian leader, however, did not occur until the Arab League Summit on 19 May 2023 in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, to which he was invited and warmly welcomed.
A thaw also began in relations with Türkiye. There were reciprocal visits by crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed (UAE) to Türkiye and Erdoğan to the Gulf emirate (2022). Egypt followed this policy of understanding in spring 2023.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt’s geopolitical reorientation of the region may contribute to a longer-term calming of the conflict. It remains to be seen whether Syria’s leader Assad is serious about ending the war in his own country and whether Iran will change its destructive behaviour in the region. The Mullah regime’s ambition to build a nuclear bomb would immediately revive the old conflict constellation.
Critical is the fact that the new political initiatives have also led to the strengthening of authoritarian systems in the region, especially through the upgrading of Syria. The Arab Spring now seems to have been laid to rest. In any case, the new Middle East will remain a volatile region.
is a German protestant theologian and publisher. Born in 1948, he served as minister in the Lutheran Church of Bavaria and was teacher of religion at a High School in Kitzingen from 1982 to 2009. Mr Arnold published numerous monographs and essays in the field of contemporary church history on the themes and issues of ethics of peace and international security policy.