Iran has long been a stalwart defender of the Palestinian cause, while Saudi Arabia has all but made public, their de-facto alliance with the Israeli regime. However, because of the universal condemnation of Donald Trump’s controversial Jerusalem/al-Quds declaration, the entire Arab world, has for the first time in decades, publicly condemned the US over its stance on Israel.
Iran is not calling Saudi Arabia’s bluff, asking Riyadh to put many differences aside with Iran in order to restore diplomatic relations, which were cut off in 2016 after years of tension.
Iran has stated that if Riyadh ceases its aggressive bombing campaign in Yemen and cuts off its ties with Israel, Tehran will be willing to restore relations in spite of many differences in both policy and ideology.
Iran remains one of the oldest countries to exercise self-government in the world. Iran traces its roots to the year 678 B.C., while by contrast, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. As the 20th century wore on, the two states went in entirely different directions with Saudi Arabia continuing to practice a reactionary Wahhabi ideology while Iran in 1979 was home to the Islamic Revolution, which ushered in modern Islamic Republicanism.
In spite of these very different realities, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has today stated,
“Saudi Arabia should suspend it bombardment of Yemen and stop begging for contacts with the Zionist regime. We want Saudi Arabia to stop two things, the misguided friendship with Israel and the inhuman bombardment of Yemen”.
Is is possible?
Surprisingly, in Yemen, Saudi ceasing its bombardment is possible. Riyadh and in particular de-facto leader Crown Price Muhammad bin Salman is anxious to end the war he spearheaded in 2015. Saudi Arabia’s inability to subdue a Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen, in spite of having vastly superior military technology, has become a long running embarrassment for Riyadh.
At the moment, the lines of control in Yemen, correspond almost precisely to the pre-1990 borders of the two states of South and North Yemen.
As geo-political expert Andrew Korbyko suggested, it would not be entirely impossible to re-constitute South Yemen as either a fully fledged independent state or half of a deeply federated Yemen. Today’s ‘South Yemen’ has a relatively stable government under President Hadi and wealthy allies in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The question here is what of North Yemen? With President Saleh dead, the most realistic yet unsustainable solution, might be for a kind of Houthi government in Sana’a that remains under a kind of semi-permanent Saudi blockade. This would effectively make a new North Yemen, a kind of Transnistria in the Arabian Peninsula, a small statelet cut off on all sides from possible allies, in spite of its coasts. With such a state would have an Iranian ally, Saudi Arabia would not realistically agree to a pro-Iranian state on its borders.
As this could not be a truly permanent solution, Saudi Arabia would eventually have to agree that North Yemen could be supplied via a neutral power. This could realistically be China, which is rapidly consolidating its position in the Horn of Africa, most specifically with the opening of its first overseas military logistics base early this year in Djibouti.
China, as a partner of Iran and a country with extremely healthy relations with Saudi Arabia, would be all too happy to transform Yemen from an impoverished country into an important stop on the Red-to-Med maritime belt of One Belt–One Road.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran would particularly mind China doing commerce in a region, where one way or another, they’ll be doing it anyway. This, a would be Yemeni Republic of Houthistan would transform into a kind of One Belt–One Road republic.
While many Iranians looked with worry when Saudi King Salman completed a successful first ever visit to Moscow, just months ago, I took a decidedly different view.
So long as President Putin and Rouhani, or those with similar outlooks remain in power in Moscow and Tehran, the partnership between Iran and Russia is assured.
Likewise, while Russia will never endorse pro-Takfiri foreign policies of Riyadh, Russia continues to cooperate with Saudi Arabia over stabilising global oil prices. Instead of engaging in a counter-productive race to the bottom, Russia recently agreed to extend a previous agreement with the Saudi dominated OPEC, to keep oil prices inflated enough to satisfy Riyadh, via production cuts.
Because Russia has an incredibly diverse economy, while Saudi Arabia does not, it is clear that in respect of the OPEC agreements, Russia is the senior partner that holds a big key to Saudi’s economic solvency.
Russia is therefore in a position to leverage Saudi’s position against Iran to force some kind of detente. As I previously wrote,
“Russia has a natural interest, as most key energy exporters do, in not engaging in a race to the bottom with would-be, let alone actual competitors. In this sense, while Russia as a military and geo-political superpower does not need the protection of OPEC that less powerful energy producers do, it is nevertheless in Moscow’s interest to cooperate with OPEC on a case by case basis. In this sense, Russia has made the decision to value stability of international oil prices more than a would-be ability to undercut competitors and win on volume, while prices plummet in all directions.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, is happy to work with the implied understanding (that may well have been voiced in private) that in exchange for Russian cooperation with OPEC, Saudi will use its surplus sovereign wealth funds which are almost entirely derived from the energy trade, to invest in the Russian economy.
In this sense, Russia’s technology, scientific expertise and growing Eurasian trading routes make a good partner for Saudi’s copious amounts of sovereign wealth.
There is another factor that is also at play. Future Saudi King and current Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is eager to diversify the Saudi economy. His pet project, Vision 2030, is already seen as overly ambitious and therefore, Saudi needs all the help it can get in becoming less dependant on oil and on foreign expertise to run the domestic economy.
Russia’s key geographic and geo-political placement on China’s One Belt–One Road combined with Saudi’s already (surprisingly to ideologues) good relations with China, means that Russia is a natural economic partner to Saudi in this sense. Saudi wants and needs as much as it can from One Belt–One Road and now Riyadh is officially working on good terms with the two largest countries along One Belt–One Road.
As for lingering foreign policy agreements which have the potential to make life difficult for Saudi and Russia, the short answer is that Russia is not concerned about this and increasingly, nor is Saudi, in spite of what Saudi propaganda designed for a regional Arab audience may indicate.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is far more limited than many acknowledge. While expensively armed, the Saudi armed forces are not well trained and by most accounts, not incredibly capable. The Saudi led air-war against Yemen which has created a humanitarian disaster, has not given Saudi any clear geo-political advantage. It has only further antagonised Iran and created bad publicity for Saudi among human rights activists in the west, including some left-leaning political figures like Jeremy Corbyn. Yet at the end of the day, Saudi’s misadventure in Yemen, which is privately criticised by many in the Saudi deep state, has done Saudi more harm than good, but at this juncture, such geo-political harm is mostly limited to Shi’a states in the Middle East.
While Saudi has been notorious for funding terrorism, this too has done little to weaken its Arab rivals, especially compared with decades of sustained Israeli aggression which has done far more to create instability and chaos in the Arab world.
This is not to say that Saudi foreign policy is moral, ethical or well-intentioned, it is none of those things, but nor has it been particularly effective in the crucial long term perspective. This distinction is often lost in impassioned arguments over the Saudi regime’s tactics….
…The Russian geo-political ‘insurance policy’ has also helped to bring Turkey and Iran closer together. Again, while Kurdish nationalism and Israeli aggression has mutually infuriated Ankara and Tehran, it was first and foremost, Russia’s friendship with both powers that allowed Iran and Turkey to develop a newfound sense of trust and mutually beneficial economic relations.
Turning to the dispute between Riyadh and Doha, Russia’s genuinely neutral stance on the row between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other, has earned Russia genuine respect on all sides of this conflict.
And then one has to necessarily turn to the Saudi/Iranian conflict. MBS is considered one of the more anti-Iranian figures in a Saudi state that is de-facto anti-Iran. While some ideologically motivated commentators think that the Saudi monarch’s visit to Moscow is a betrayal of the Moscow-Tehran partnership, this is no more the case than Russia’s increasingly good relations with Turkey has been a threat to Russia’s Syrian partner.
The slow-moving but increasingly obvious outcome of good Russian relations with Turkey has meant that Turkey is now playing a less destructive and detracting role in Syria. While Damascus and Ankara still do not have official diplomatic channels, the fact that Damascus welcomed the Turkish policed de-escalation zone in Syria’s Idlib Governorate, is a sign of a small yet significant rapprochement, albeit via a third party.
Likewise, if both Iran and Saudi become increasingly intertwined in an economic partnership with Russia and also China, there will be less of a chance that Saudi would ever make good on its threats against Iran. Even now, the threats against Iran are mostly rhetorical as Saudi simply does not have the ability to even attempt to win a war against Iran’s superior armed forces.
In this sense, Russia is helping create stability in the Middle East by making previous and current rival nations into countries that each have an economic interest in a common partner. That partner is Russia which increasingly also means China, by extrapolation, as well as overriding realities of Chinese investment in the Middle East. There is only one nation that is one good to very good terms with nations as diverse as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Qatar, Palestine, Israel and in many ways, event the notoriously difficult Lebanon. This country is Russia.
Just as Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the Premiership in Islamabad has not negatively impacted Pakistan’s close economic and geo-political relations with China, so too would any would-be palace coup in Saudi, or any other Persian Gulf monarchy, not effect relations with Russia as much as some would hope or in other cases, fear. There is only so much that any ideological state can do to resist pragmatism. This far, Russia has quietly made sure that in all such states, pragmatic thinking beats out ideological rhetoric. Saudi Arabia is no exception, it in fact, proves the rule”.
In respect of Israel, Russia has been able to maintain healthy relations with both Israel and Palestine as well as with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, Russia remains a close partner of Syria as well, while effectively re-establishing long lost good relations with Iraq.
If Russia could somehow broker a deal whereby Saudi’s relations with Israel were reduced to economic rather than geo-political cooperation, while encouraging Riyadh to at least partly cease parroting Israeli rhetoric about Iran, Russia could help to “reduce” Riyadh’s levels of relations with Tel Aviv to that which Tehran might find acceptable for the purposes of using pan-Islamic leverage against Tel Aviv on the issue of Jerusalem/al-Quds.
While Iran’s position on rapprochement with Saudi Arabia remains a tall order, it is not as tall as it appears at first glace. The war in Yemen has been costly and embarrassing to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is looking for a way out, but thus far have not been able to do so in a manner that preserves the internal “dignity” of the regime among domestic critics.
In respect of Israel, while Saudi will likely continue its burgeoning business contacts with Israel, the idea of teaming up to threaten Iran would be a suicide mission for Muhammad bin Salman and his regime and deep down most Saudis do realise this.
If China and Russia could both use their economic and diplomatic influence over Riyadh to try and force some agreement on key issues, it could be a “win-win” situation for the entire Middle East.
Saudi Arabia would save face and money over Yemen, as well as restore much needed prestige on the issue of Palestine, where most Arabs feel that Saudi Arabia now cares far less than the non-Arab powers of Iran and Turkey. Iran of course would lose nothing in such a deal, but gain a substantial diplomatic upper hand which would show that Tehran is able to take the high road with its opponents, without surrendering its principles.