The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran had a hostile relationship that extended for long periods, the most important of which was the religious orientation at the forefront of the political scene in both countries, followed by several political and expansionist factors, as the effects of hostility began to become evident during the Iranian revolution in 1979. Both nation-states represent the two main Islamic sects, the Shiites. And the Sunnis, which contributed to fueling the dispute between the two countries. Both countries have supported opposing sides in various conflicts, including in Syria during its civil war and in Yemen as well as Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
The Arab Spring in 2011 caused political instability across the Middle East against the status quo. Iran and Saudi Arabia took advantage of this unrest to expand their influence, particularly in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. In Bahrain, where Shiites protested against the Sunni royal family, Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the uprising and blamed Iran for fomenting the unrest. After the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. In Syria, Iran supported President Bashar al-Assad and provided him with military forces and financing to fight Sunni rebels. Saudi Arabia initially supported the rebel groups but later joined a US-led coalition formed to fight ISIS since 2014. When conflict between the Houthis and the government began in 2015 in Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched an intervention in hopes of restoring a government that had been toppled by the Houthi rebels – Iran’s allies.
In 2016, after a stampede in Mecca, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite leader Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi government. Rising tensions between the two countries escalated when a mob of Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. The embassy building was set on fire with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Another territorial rupture occurred in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and its allies in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar. The pretext was that Qatar was very close to Iran and supported terrorism, allegations Doha denied. These links were later fixed in early 2021.
The history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is one of increasing mutual suspicion. However, both countries may have realized that their rivalry hurt them more than their enemy, both politically and economically. Neither side could gain any real superiority over the other and perhaps this realization prompted them to seek a new stage in their relationship. In April 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia held their first direct talks in Baghdad, likely with the tacit approval of the United States. Between April and September 2022, four rounds of talks were held, most of them mediated by Iraq and Oman but with no tangible result.
In March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish relations after four days of previously unannounced talks in Beijing. Tehran and Riyadh agreed to “resume diplomatic relations between them and reopen their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months.” This decision could have both regional and international implications as it marks a new phase in their relationship. The decisive indicator for the beginning of the new relations will be the efforts made in settling outstanding regional issues between the two powers. The most important factor emerging from the normalization of relations between the two arch-rivals is the mediation of China and the shifting of the balance of power in the Middle East from a US-centric to a now Chinese-dominated one. Many Western officials and analysts have expressed concern about both Beijing’s role and the risk that the Iranian government can use restored relations with Saudi Arabia to bypass intense US and European pressure related to its nuclear programs, suppression of domestic protests, and support for Russia in Ukraine. Although the China-brokered deal faces significant challenges, it could have significant implications for regional stability. It could lead to a reduction in tensions between the two countries and possibly pave the way for cooperation on regional issues such as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. The deal indicates that both sides have made some progress in addressing critical areas of dispute. Saudi Arabia long ago restored normalized diplomatic relations based on an Iranian commitment to escalatory steps in Yemen. Restoring relations could be a prelude for Riyadh to even formally withdraw from Yemen.
However, it is important to note that there are still many challenges that must be overcome for this relationship to improve significantly and herald meaningful stability in the region. It is expected that this convergence may take some time to reach the stage of restoring confidence. Saudi Arabia in particular is likely to view the deal more as a hedging mechanism to protect itself from Iranian attacks than as a true strategic realignment. Iran’s leaders, for their part, want Riyadh to withdraw its support for the exiled Iranian opposition, thwarting mounting Western pressure by diversifying its relations with other Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia has been the only major steadfast. Finally, Tehran wants to neutralize potential Israeli cooperation with Arab states for a military attack on Iran. . It remains to be seen how much Iran can use Saudi Arabia to offset the sanctions – given that Riyadh is still pushing Europe and the US to put more pressure on Iran.
The deal signals China’s increased involvement in geopolitical challenges in the Middle East.
Chinese leaders understand that instability threatens important interests, particularly in the energy field. Riyadh, in turn, sees Beijing as an increasingly credible partner in countering US disengagement, but also as the only country with real leverage over Iran, which Saudi Arabia expects to exploit. China’s role in facilitating this agreement constituted a kind of real concern for Washington. This was largely intended by Saudi leaders, who hoped that the threat of growing Chinese influence would upgrade American security guarantees. There are wide prospects and fears for some, of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Time will ultimately tell the final lines but it is certainly a diplomatic, not a military, path.