Thaw in Saudi-Iran relations heralds new beginning for the Middle East

Developing Just Leadership

Abul Fadl

Muharram 04, 1419 1998-05-01


by Abul Fadl (World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 5, Muharram, 1419)

Over the past few months, Iran and Saudi Arabia have edged closer toward warmer relations after nearly two decades of acrimony, tension and hostility. Tangible signs of improved ties between Tehran and Riyadh include the numerous visits of Iranian and Saudi officials to each other’s countries, most important of which were the trip made last December by Saudi crown prince and deputy prime minister prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz to Tehran on the occasion of the eighth summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the ten-day ‘ground-breaking’ visit to Saudi Arabia last February by the chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council and former president Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Other signs of warmer bilateral relations include the resumption of direct scheduled flights between the two countries for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, a US$15 million industrial cooperation deal, and the formation of a joint economic committee. In addition, during his meeting with Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, who paid a short visit to Saudi Arabia in March, king Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz extended an invitation to president Muhammad Khatami to visit the kingdom.

Many political observers and pundits have attributed the recent thaw in relations between the two Persian Gulf oil giants to the ‘moderate’ foreign policy approach adopted by president Khatami. However, a closer look at recent developments in Saudi-Iranian relations reveals that the real impetus for the current rapprochement has come from Riyadh rather than Tehran. It also indicates that the process of diplomatic maneuvering for a rapprochement had started well before the election of president Khatami. Catalysts for change in the kingdom’s approach toward the Islamic Republic are rooted in a complex web of interrelated considerations and underlying realities.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War marked a crucial turning point in Saudi-Iranian relations. The fact that Tehran remained neutral in the war resulted in subtle regional atmospheric changes as Gulf Arab States moved to shape a more normal relationship with Iran. The improved relations warmed up considerably after king Fahd was felled by a stroke two years ago. The subsequent growing role in foreign affairs of crown prince Abdallah, who has since been running the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom, provided another catalyst for improved relations. While attending an Islamic summit in Pakistan in March 1997, Abdallah extended an invitation to then-president Rafsanjani to visit the kingdom.

By seeking better ties with Iran, Abdallah, who is not as likely as the present king to abide by each and every American diktat, is apparently trying to assert his independence vis-a-vis Washington and redefine Saudi Arabia’s relationships in the region. The crown prince is reportedly very critical of Washington’s blind support for Israel. When she visited Riyadh last February in an attempt to lobby Saudi Arabia to support an American-led military strike against Iraq, the crown prince is reported to have treated US secretary of State Madeleine Albright to a stern lecture on the failings of America’s Middle East policy.

Abdallah’s efforts to mend fences with Iran came amid two noteworthy political developments in US Middle East policy. One is Washington’s unwillingness to use its leverage to pressure Israeli prime minister Banjamin Netanyahu to implement the agreements negotiated by his predecessor with the Palestinians - a reluctance that has effectively deadlocked the US-sponsored Middle East ‘peace process.’ The other is the failure, insofar as Iran is concerned, of Washington’s ‘dual containment’ policy designed to rein in and isolate both Iraq and Iran.

These developments drove a wedge between the US and its Arab allies. This wedge was clearly evident on such occasions as when Saudi Arabia joined most Arab States in resisting Washington’s pressure to attend the US-sponsored economic conference held in the Qatari capital, Doha, last November just a few weeks before the OIC summit in Tehran. Another occasion was when Riyadh refused to subscribe to the accusations leveled by Washington at Tehran in a bid to implicate Iran in the June 1996 bombing of an apartment building in eastern Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen. In fact, the bombing has apparently brought to the Saudi royal family the stinging ice of reality of deep internal opposition to the kingdom’s total dependence on, and subservience to, the US.

It is this realization that has prompted the Saudi government to repeatedly refuse permission for US planes based in the kingdom to take part in attacks on Iraq over the last two years. Obviously, for a country as dependent on Uncle Sam’s military protection as Saudi Arabia, moving away from the US necessitates patching up differences with powerful neighbours such as Iran.

On the other hand, by working toward upgrading bilateral cooperation with the Islamic Republic, the Saudis sought a way out of their economic difficulties. The current steep decline in oil prices on the world market has compounded the negative economic effects of the Asian financial crisis and the recurrent standoffs over weapons inspections in Iraq. The downward movement of oil prices, following decades of excessive irrational spending sprees, has prompted the Saudis to issue a large amount of government bonds to make up for the resulting budget deficit. Under these circumstances, the Saudis stand to gain considerably from Iran’s cooperation on oil prices inside and outside of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Such cooperation would help ease the enormous pressure on the kingdom’s finances.

Restoring oil prices is also in the best interest of Iran. Prices for Iranian heavy oil have recently plunged to US$10 a barrel, thus putting more pressure on the Islamic Republic’s budget drawn on an expected oil price ranging between US$15-16. The gloomy prospect of decreased national revenues has recently induced president Khatami to decide to review the budget.

The Saudi-Iranian thaw will also have a positive impact on Iranian-Arab relations as a whole. This would undermine Washington’s efforts to isolate Iran.

However, the thaw should not be mistaken for a complete rupture in Saudi-American relations. That may be going too far for the Arab potentates ruling in the Gulf, who rely on Washington for protection as demonstrated in the 1990 crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century. More than 5,000 US troops are stationed in the kingdom. Even if Riyadh has truly come to recognize that coexistence with neighbours may be safer than dependence on the west, the kingdom’s huge oil reserves will continue to whet the appetite of the Americans to meddle in its affairs.

Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1998

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