Dialogue will ease the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The best way to thaw relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is for civil society to recognise that the two countries have much in common, argue Sultan Barakat and Fraus Masri

ISIL is a common threat for Iran and Saudi Arabia. AFP
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A highly polarising issue, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear programme divided analysts and officials into two camps: supporters of the plan and those who feel that it will lead to catastrophe for the West, the Gulf states and Israel. Growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, coupled with the world’s focus on the spread of ISIL and other extremist groups, overshadowed any opportunity to improve relations between the two rivals.

Missing from this debate has been the voice of average citizens on both sides of the divide.

Unfortunately, what little opportunity for engagement on these issues existed was frustrated by the recent escalation of harsh rhetoric between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Since government officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia do not seem able to de-escalate tensions, it is time that the “silenced majority” represented by their respective civil societies take a more proactive role in initiating dialogue above the current political discourses.

Initiating this type of dialogue could serve as a starting point to break barriers. The goal of this plan would hinge on this discussion reaching a level of prominence that ultimately attracts the attention of the political elite, and in turn, forces them to engage with each other.

No one can deny Iran’s sordid past associated with its financing of terrorism and its interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries. Decades of sanctions, economic and physical isolation against Iran have given a free rein to its “deep state”, resulting in the Revolutionary Guard and other unelected shadowy apparatuses taking charge of the situation inside and outside the country. Saudi Arabia’s apparent marginalisation of its Shiite minority troubles Iran, the self-appointed champion of the global Shiite community.

Regrettably, these past transgressions cannot disappear from history. Instead, civil society can work together to ensure the future does not share with the past the same inflammatory actions that brought these two countries to the current impasse.

By highlighting the common interests shared by these two countries, cooperation will actualise.

In Iran, a high level of development exists, due in part to its educated and skilled workforce. Even under economic sanctions, Iran displayed an ability to support productive projects in the agriculture, chemical, and textile industries.

Although it possesses a highly educated populace, Saudi Arabia depends heavily on oil exports to power its economy. With the price of crude oil at a low level, the development of alternative energy sources, and the increase in supply of crude oil to the global marketplace, it would behove Saudi Arabia to cultivate other industries to guarantee a resilient economy.

Iran and Saudi Arabia also share common threats. Both countries can now use their influence to combat the extreme views perpetuated by ISIL and Al Qaeda. A discussion of potential strategies to weaken these extremist movements by the civil societies of Iran and Saudi Arabia would move the debate back to the official channels of government.

Shifting the discussion of the problems affecting the Iranian-Saudi relationship to the civil sector would permit an honest debate unencumbered by the hostilities of official dialogue. This would help strengthen the legitimate governing authority and undermine the position of the “deep state”.

Of course, these conversations should take place on neutral ground.

The 2001 security agreement signed by the two countries could serve as a precedent for any future security partnership. Moderate Iranians and Saudis from the civil society could then speak freely with each other on key issues without fear of repercussions from their respective governments.

A moral responsibility to do something to ease tensions exists. A thawing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would promote a feeling of optimism in the region, which could be employed to address other conflicts also.

Sultan Barakat is the director of research at Brookings Doha. Fraus Masri is a research assistant at the same organisation