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Saudi Iranian détente potentially sparks paradigm shifts

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

James M. Dorsey



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Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran potentially signals paradigm shifts in Middle Eastern diplomacy and alliances.

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Minister of State of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban in a meeting in Beijing on March 10, 2023. Photo: China Daily via Reuters


The mediation suggests a more productive approach than that of the United States by seeking to manage rather than resolve conflicts based on principles enunciated by China in 2021.


The successful mediation between the Middle East’s foremost archrivals also indicates it could lead to a broader regional détente.


Sources in Bahrain said 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.


Long at the forefront of disputes between Iran and various Gulf states, Bahrain would be the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member without formal relations with the Islamic republic when Riyadh and Tehran exchange ambassadors in accordance with the agreement negotiated by China.


The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

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.



The two countries agreed to no longer show their fangs, 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, including Saudi Arabia. It also may spark new cleavages and exasperate existing ones.


The agreement has 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 only when there is a solution to the Palestinian problem.


In a sign of the times, Saudi Arabia this week prevented Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen from attending a UN World Tourism Organisation conference in the kingdom by refusing to discuss security arrangements for the visit. Mr. Cohen's attendance would have been a Cabinet-level Israeli official's first public visit to the kingdom.


Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen arrives at a government conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Jan. 15, 2023. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90


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.



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.

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2017. Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/ AP/ File



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,” Mr. 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 normalisation 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.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Photo: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters file



Together with Bahrain, the UAE has, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, been slow in injecting warmth into the normalisation.


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 Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, 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.


Prominent British Muslims, whom conservative members of the Muslim community and other conservative groups accuse of having links to Islamist organisations, including the Brotherhood, earlier this month were invited to a two-day conference in London hosted by Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League.


In London, HE Sheikh Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, SG of the MWL, inaugurated the 1st conference for Muslim religious leaders in Europe, in the presence of more than 300 participants. Non-Muslim religious leaders, as well as members of the UK Parliament, attended the inauguration as guests. Photo: Twitter/@MhmdAlissa


The conservative critics took exception to an allegedly prominent role given at the conference for British and European Muslim leaders to the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation that has been blacklisted for much of the past 14 years by successive British governments.


The government refuses to engage with the Council because its then deputy director-general called in 2009 for violence against Israel and condoned attacks on the Royal Navy if it tried to intercept arms for Hamas, the Islamist group controlling Gaza, from being smuggled into the Strip.


A widely respected British academic described the blacklisting as “a political decision from the rightwing” that lacked evidence. He said the allegations of Islamist connections were “off the mark" and that "the current Secretary General is a wholly different generation than that of the past."


The intellectual further noted that the government had reengaged with the Council for a period before again blackballing the group.


“The current secretary-general was basically a child when all of this happened but is still being clobbered over the head with it. It’s a double standard, no such rigour of past connections exists around other representative groups,” the academic said.


Since coming to office, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has converted the Muslim World League into the propagator of his autocratic form of Islam that is socially more liberal, politically repressive, and demands absolute obedience to the ruler.


Once a Brotherhood stronghold, the League was a major global funder of erstwhile Saudi religious ultra-conservatism for more than 60 years since its founding in 1962.


Notwithstanding Mr. Bin Salman's repositioning, sources privy to the League's inner workings suggest members of the Brotherhood remain influential and on the organisation's payroll.

"The old guard is still very much present," one source said.


"There is a bit of a schism in Saudi, and some of the younger anti-Brotherhood guard can't believe how the Muslim World League is operating," added another who follows the group closely.


Saudi Arabia's state-aligned Al Arabiya television network reported from Cairo days before the London conference that exiled offspring of prominent Egyptian Muslim Brothers were restructuring the group in Europe and the United States.


An article on the network's website critical of the Brotherhood warned the activists were recruiting among Arabs in the West. It asserted that they also sought to "infiltrate' human rights groups.


A third source with close ties to the kingdom argued that "the question is whether the Muslim World League only restructured to meet the new Muslim Brotherhood generation in the West. They seem to say one thing to some people and something different to others."



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and 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 of Middle East Soccer.


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