Saudi-Iranian Détente Could Spark Paradigm Shifts
by James M. Dorsey
Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran potentially signals paradigm shifts in Middle Eastern diplomacy and alliances.
Sources also say that Bahrain, the Shiite-majority Gulf state ruled by a Sunni Muslim minority, might be on the verge of restoring diplomatic relations with Iran. The sources said Bahrain and Iran were already exchanging messages. In what looks like a possible second wave of détente in the Middle East, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan could be next in line.
In the first wave, Saudi Arabia and the UAE buried their hatchets with Qatar and Turkey; the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel; and Israel and Turkey patched up their differences.
To be sure, the dialing down of tensions without parties making major political concessions and the revival of economic ties meant countries were no longer showing their fangs. Instead, they put their differences on ice.
Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be traveling down the same road, with the kingdom allegedly promising to stop funding media and groups opposed to the regime in Tehran. In return, Iran reportedly pledged to help end the eight-year-long war in Yemen and prevent Houthi rebels from striking at targets in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Foreign Ministry denied that Yemen had been discussed in Beijing.
At the same time, the agreement appears to have potentially put a monkey wrench in geopolitical maneuvering by Israel and various Arab states. It also may spark new cleavages and exasperate existing ones.
The agreement has also dampened Israeli and US hopes of a united Saudi-Emirati-Israeli front against Iran that could risk a military confrontation.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia will likely have been fortified in its resolve to establish formal relations with the Jewish state. In a sign of the times, Saudi Arabia prevented Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen from attending a UN World Tourism Organization conference in the kingdom by refusing to discuss security arrangements for the visit. Cohen’s attendance would have been a Cabinet-level Israeli official’s first public visit to the kingdom.
While the timing may have been coincidental, the agreement put a reported Emirati decision to stop purchasing Israeli military equipment in a larger context.
Israeli media reports said the decision had been prompted by Israel’s domestic political crisis, which raised doubts about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ability to control his far-right, ultra-nationalist, and ultra-religious coalition partners.
The UAE has forged close economic and security ties with Israel since establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, together with Bahrain and Morocco.
Last month, Israel and the UAE unveiled a jointly developed unmanned surveillance, reconnaissance, and mine-detecting vessel.
Ali Shamkani, the Iranian national security official who negotiated the deal with Saudi Arabia in Beijing, was in the UAE this week to meet President Mohammed bin Zayed. The Emirates has been out front in reaching out to Iran in recent years.
The Saudi and Emirati moves prompted Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency and a long-time dove, to wonder aloud whether Israel, too, should reach out to Iran.
“This should be the moment for Israel to analyze the situation and, inter alia, to determine whether this is an opportune moment to launch a very careful positive probe in the direction of Tehran,” Halevy opined in an article in Haaretz, Israel’s foremost liberal newspaper.
In a twist of irony, the UAE halt to Israeli arms acquisitions makes a Saudi recognition of Israel any time soon even less likely.
Even so, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement appears to have energized an emerging cleavage between the kingdom and the UAE, onetime allies who increasingly are becoming economic and political competitors.
The cleavage has prompted the UAE to suddenly speed up the gradual normalization of relations with Qatar, two years after the lifting in 2021 of the Emirati-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state because of its alleged ties to Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Together with Bahrain, the UAE has, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, been slow in injecting warmth into the normalization.
That appears to have changed.
In the last week, the UAE reportedly withdrew its bid to host the 2026 World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting, and said it would support Qatar as a potential host instead. The UAE also unblocked Qatari news websites it had blocked during the boycott. These include the Al Jazeera television network, the London-based The New Arab newspaper, and the state-run Qatar News Agency.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia, which like the UAE, has designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, appears to be cautiously reviving ties to figures allegedly associated with the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has long been more ambivalent towards the Brotherhood, a particular bete noir of the UAE.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.