Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Iran and Saudi Arabia: The New Middle East?

The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran came as a surprise to many. For the region, this could mean upheaval, changes in power relations and – many expect – a reduction in conflicts.

by Anna Osius, ARD Studio Cairo

When it comes to the future, the voice of Mustafa Kamal, political scientist at Cairo University, suddenly tinges with enthusiasm. “The title of my next article will be: ‘The New Middle East’. This agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a new Middle East – unlike anything we have known before,” said Kamal.

Anna Osius
ARD Studio Cairo

New realism among those in power

Reports that Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s archenemies of several years, are seeking to resume diplomatic relations apparently caused a ruckus in observer circles.

Kamal says a new form of realism on both sides made the deal possible. “The Saudis see that without an agreement, for example in the Yemen war, they will get no further,” he says. “And Iran is weak domestically and economically and therefore in need of foreign policy successes. This made the deal possible – realism among those in power.

America is concerned about power in the region

Over the years, many conflicts in the Near and Middle East have been based on the rivalry between the two major powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hardly anyone – neither in the Middle East nor in the United States – expected that the region’s major adversaries would actually come to a preliminary agreement.

“In Washington, people are perplexed and concerned about the position of American power in the world.”, former US diplomat Hillary Mann Leverett said on the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera. Because: This time, it was not the United States who played the role of mediator, as has often been the case in the past, but China, of all places.

Mann Leverett says, “The Chinese are now an inescapable force in the Middle East, not America.” “It’s a fact after this deal. China has money, diplomacy, biggest success – that makes China the new big player.”

China as the new leader of the world order

Behind this lies China’s interest: economic ties with both Saudi and Iran without neglecting trading partners. Above all, though, there is a signal to the international community about who wants to be the new leader of the world order: no longer the West, but China – and also its close partner Russia.

The Saudis, historically closely allied with the United States, are turning to China, according to political scientist Ibrahim Freihat of the Doha Institute: “Saudi Arabia has been frustrated with the Biden government for years and is therefore looking for new alliances . East. With an agreement thereafter, we expect a reduction in tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq” – four countries whose fortunes are closely linked to the geopolitical power play of the two regional powers.

war in yemen

In Yemen, former President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces are fighting Houthi rebels. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia supports government troops and has been carrying out airstrikes since 2015. The Houthis, in turn, receive aid from Iran. Therefore, the Yemen conflict was also seen as a proxy war between two major adversaries in the region: Saudi Arabia against Iran.

A ceasefire lasting several months had come into force nearly a year earlier, but was not extended in the autumn. But there is some hope now, says political scientist Kamal: “I am hopeful that the ceasefire will continue. It will take time for the Houthis and other forces to reach a real agreement, but an extension of the ceasefire would be a good thing.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg has also been cautiously optimistic over the past few weeks. “We are currently seeing increased international and regional diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. We may be experiencing a change of direction in this eight-year conflict,” Grundberg said.

crisis in lebanon

Lebanon is in a severe economic crisis, and the currency has lost over 90 percent of its value. Directly supported by Iran, Hezbollah forms a kind of state within a state and wields great power in the country. On the other hand, there are other movements in the country closer to Saudi Arabia.

The political situation is deadlocked: several attempts to elect a new president have failed. Will the Saudi-Iranian deal solve this power vacuum? Observers have different views. Professor Kamal is optimistic. Kamal says, “Hezbollah has proposed a promising candidate for the presidency and the deal could be that this candidate is in exchange for the so-called opposition providing the prime minister.”

Heiko Wimen from the International Crisis Group in Beirut, on the other hand, downplays hopes of billions in aid from Saudi Arabia for the economy – above all, Lebanon needs reforms. “Saudi Arabia has recently distanced itself from its so-called checkbook diplomacy. Apparently, Riyadh is no longer willing to send large amounts of money to countries that have proved to be bottomless pits.

Without these reforms, which are essential to restarting the Lebanese economy, Lebanon will remain a bottomless pit. Then no one will invest money in the country – neither the IMF nor Saudi Arabia, believes Wiman.

war in syria

In Syria, too, Iran and Saudi Arabia have played a bloody game for years: Iran as a direct partner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia as a longtime supporter of rebels. Observers are not very optimistic that the situation in Syria will change radically – because ruler Assad is firmly in the saddle.

Many believe that Assad will continue his gradual return to the world political stage, backed by Russia and Iran – and possibly eventually be accepted again by Saudi Arabia.

instability in Iraq

Iraq is under the direct influence of its large neighbor, Iran. On the other hand, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, is also trying to establish good relations with Saudi Arabia and America. Iraq wants relations with both sides. “The Iraqi prime minister was very active in supporting reconciliation between the Saudis and Iran. But of course, the road ahead will not be easy,” says Kamal.

Observers agree: all possible outcomes of the deal are still far away – perhaps the announcement in China was nothing more than a clever coup by two regimes, without consequences for the people of the region.

Now everything depends on whether the Saudi-Iranian agreement is actually implemented, according to political scientist Freiht: “The real success lies not in signing an agreement, but in its implementation. Not all problems have gone away.

Frehat told Al Jazeera that as long as the conflict with Israel continues, Iran will not give up its armed militias in different countries. “It remains a threat to the Saudis.”

Losers USA and Israel

Incidentally, the United States – booted by China – and Israel are considered the major losers of the agreement. Israel had high hopes for a normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, even dreaming of a military alliance against Iran. It appears to be off the table for now – and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly fuming over the weakness of Joe Biden’s diplomacy in the Middle East.

Analysts say Riyadh has sent a strong signal to Tel Aviv that Saudi Arabia will not support a possible military strike against Iran. Observers say Netanyahu has suffered a major setback.

Even if everything is still open, many are hoping for some peace in the troubled Middle East after a possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Friendship between Saudi Arabia and Iran – results for the region

Anna Osius, ARD Cairo, 18.3.2023 at 12:57

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