The renewal of diplomatic relations, after seven years, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, is cause for alarm in the West for several reasons. It shows that China is moving to replace the United States as the chief outside power in the region. China hopes for greater economic ties to the fabulously rich Saudis, including Chinese access to the Saudi market, not just selling products, but more importantly, Chinese companies are eager to build much of the vast infrastructure projects on which the Kingdom is planning to spend $500 billion, as well as hoping to attract Saudi investments in China. Iran is seen by China as permanently opposed to the United States, and thus a natural ally and trading partner of Beijing. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran can provide China with stable supplies of oil.
Iran has recently developed good relations with Russia, which during the last year has become Tehran’s closest military ally, with Iran providing Moscow with 1,450 drones and other weaponry, while Moscow now promises to deliver to Iran its top-of-the-line Sukhoi Su 35 fighter jets, and has also promised to return to Iran the 20,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium the Iranians had transferred to Russia as part of the JCPOA deal in 2015. Now Iran wants to increase its economic ties to China. China is eager to invest in Iran, especially in its mineral wealth, including the newly-discovered vast reserves of lithium, an essential component of batteries for EV vehicles, and the most important mineral for ...-fossil fuel age. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement takes place within a context of better ties between both Saudi Arabia and Iran with China, as well as the close military alliance of Iran with Russia.
Saudi columnists have said that the Kingdom remains wary of Iran, and will watch closely how Iran behaves in the next two months during which the two countries are to officially restore relations. More on this can be found here: “Iran’s behavior will be under microscope in coming months, say Saudi columnists,” Reuters, March 12, 2023:
Saudi Arabia will watch Iran’s behavior during the two-month window agreed upon to restore relations, Saudi columnists said on Sunday, reflecting continued wariness in the longtime rivalry between the region’s Sunni Muslim and Shi’ite powers.
The breakthrough on Friday [March 10] brokered by China, a major trade partner of both countries, followed several rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks held in the region in a bid to contain tensions, at a time of Gulf frustration over what they perceive as gradual US disengagement from the region.
The Bidenites got off to a bad start with Saudi Arabia when, during the presidential campaign, Biden promised to treat the Kingdom as a “pariah state” because of its killing of Jamal Khashoggi and its human rights record. The Bidenites further disconcerted the Saudis by constantly referring to their “pivot” away from the Middle East to Asia, which naturally caused the Saudis to start looking elsewhere for the support of a major power, and China fit the bill. China’s first significant political act in the Middle East has been acting as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries that had long been mortal enemies and now, under Chinese guidance, were ready to renew relations and give “peace” a chance.
Tehran and Riyadh said they had agreed to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies within two months, adding that their foreign minister would meet to implement the deal, without mentioning a more detailed timeline.
“The two-month period… is the first test of Iran’s credibility and proof of good intentions as we must see the start of real change in the regional landscape and a real correction in its dealings with the Kingdom,” Saudi columnist Hamoud Abu Taleb wrote in Okaz, a Saudi daily.
A main source of tension is Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalitionthat has since 2015 been battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement — which has during the war launched missiles and drones at the kingdom.
What happens in Yemen will be the key to whether the Saudi-Iranian restoration of relations will hold. For seven years, the Saudis have spent billions in shoring up the national government, controlled by Sunnis, against the Shi’a Houthis who have been in open revolt against that government, and the Houthis have managed, with Iranian weapons and money, to seize most of the country. The Saudis are tired of being tied down in their Yemeni adventure, and would like to pull out, but not at the cost of a total Houthi victory. Can the Saudis prevail upon Iran to convince the Houthis to stop fighting, and agree to maintain the status quo, instead of trying to seize still more territory from the Sunnis? The Houthis are only one-third of the Yemeni population; they cannot win if Iran ceases to supply them with money and weapons. By withdrawing both, Iran can force the Houthis to stop fighting and accept becoming part of a government of national unity, and what’s more, to relieve the Saudis of fears about an “Iranian base” being set up on their southern border, no outside powers would be allowed to establish a presence.
Abdullah al-Otaibi, in an Op-ed in Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, agreed the timeline to reopen embassies would “test” Iran’s commitment and said Beijing could play a more effective role than “failed” Western efforts with Tehran.
The Saudis are much more important than Iran to China. It is Saudi Arabia that offers the prospect of huge contracts for Chinese companies to build infrastructure in the new cities, part of his Vision 2030 grand plan, on which the Crown Prince is prepared to spend at least $500 billion. And it is Saudi Arabia, not impoverished Iran, that can invest hundreds of billions of dollars in China.
Gulf states have grown increasingly disillusioned with key ally and security guarantor the United States, including over global powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Iran which they deemed flawed for not tackling Iran’s missile program and proxies.
The Bidenites have wanted to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which said nothing about Iran’s attempts, through a series of proxies and allies, including the Houthis in Yemen, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Iraq, Assad’s Alawite-led army in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, to create a “Shi’a crescent” in the region, in order to challenge the oil-rich Sunni states of the Gulf. Nor did that original deal mention ballistic missiles – that is, the essential delivery system for any nuclear weapons Iran might manage to manufacture. And though the Bidenites had originally promised that they would work to “lengthen and strengthen” the Iran deal – by that meaning to curb both Iran’s missile program and to rein in its support of proxies and allies in the region – they never raised these issues with Iran during the negotiations in Vienna. The Saudis, like the Israelis, were alarmed at this signal failure of the Bidenites.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have moved to assert more control over regional stability by pursuing conciliatory foreign policies they hope will allow them to focus on economic priorities.
The Saudis would like to wind down their role in the Yemeni civil war, which has been going on since 2015. They have sent 100 airplanes, and 150,000 Saudi soldiers, to fight in Yemen. The Shi’a Houthis, though they make up only one-third of the Yemeni population, have with Iranian weapons and money managed nonetheless to take over most of the country, including the capital San’a. The conflict is a drain on Saudi men, money, and materiel. And the Crown Prince would like Saudi Arabia to no longer be distracted by the conflict in Yemen, or for that matter by Iranian mischief-making elsewhere in the region. He wants the government focussed completely on economic development: the VISION 2030, consisting of a vast building project of several entirely new cities “for doers and dreamers” — as the website for the “city of the future,” NEOM, puts it. The Crown Prince would like to put all of his government’s energy and focus into this – the most gigantic building project in the history of the world.
Here’s a sample of the overheated prose the Saudis have put on-line about NEOM:
We call ourselves ‘dreamers and doers’ for a reason: we can make happen not just what is possible, but what is impossible. NEOM is a unique investment opportunity, unrivalled anywhere else. This is not business as usual. Be a part of it. Invest in the new future now, invest in NEOM.
We’re collaborating on fresh ideas and new solutions built on pure creativity and innovation. By becoming part of our team at NEOM, you will join world-leading talents; a global community of visionary minds and adventurous spirits, brought together by the chance to make history.
It’s the usual semi-demented exaggeration and blague — for all I know, the Saudis really believe this stuff that their Western advertising men compose for them.
The Saudis want to devote their time and attention to VISION 2030, and to be able to ignore who rules in impoverished Yemen – as long as that country doesn’t become an Iranian base.
The next two months will give the Saudis time to consider whether their decision to reopen relations with Iran makes sense. Will Iran be conciliatory in Yemen, promising – and delivering on the promise – to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table, so that the Saudis can cut their losses in Yemen and bring home 150,000 soldiers and more than 100 planes? Will Iran stop its meddling with the restive Shi’a who live in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, as it has done in the past by fanning the flames of their discontent with their Sunni rulers in Riyadh?
And will Iran continue its headlong rush to the nuclear finish line, hoping to manufacture several nuclear bombs before the Israelis can blow their program to smithereens? Can Saudi Arabia really trust a nuclear-armed Iran not to blackmail it into giving the Shia in the Eastern Province their independence? Will Saudi Arabia realize in the nick of time, that it has as much of a stake in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as does its erstwhile security ally, Israel, and help the Israeli effort by allowing the pre-positioning of planes on Saudi soil?