Saudi Arabia-Iran ties bode well for stability in the region

The renewed diplomatic relations are a fresh start that could herald peace

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, as Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, looks on, in Beijing, on March 11. AP
Powered by automated translation

The restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran on Friday has been widely seen as a significant and positive development for the Middle East, and rightly so. Peace and co-operation between two regional powers is vital, as viewed from the lens of stability.

The UAE welcomed the newly brokered ties as an important step towards development and prosperity in the region, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, and Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the President, endorsing the proverbial handshake. It follows the UAE’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran last year, in the mutual interest of peace and stability, which resulted in both countries reopening their embassies after six years.

For Saudi Arabia, this is an important chapter, after the cooling of ties with Tehran following attacks on its diplomatic missions inside Iran in 2016. This is not least of all in light of the waning influence of the US in the Middle East. Washington, which was not involved in the talks brokered by Beijing, has had its decades-long reliability as a security guarantor to its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, increasingly questioned. In recent years, when Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have targeted Riyadh and other cities close to the Saudi border with missiles and drones, the US has done little more than condemn these attacks.

For Iran, rapprochement could offer much-needed respite, as its government deals with economic turmoil but also social upheaval due to nationwide protests following the death of a young Iranian woman in police custody. Its international reputation, that of a pariah, is due in no small measure to its regional activities and consistent uranium enrichment that are a part of its nuclear weapons programme, both of which pose security threats to its neighbourhood. The renewing of ties with the kingdom, with which the Iranian regime has long been at odds, could provide an opportunity for it to begin mending relations with other members of the international community.

Beijing deserves some of the credit for this diplomatic breakthrough. However, it is important to remember that the talks themselves have been years in the making, with several rounds of diplomatic discussions having been held in the region, notably in Baghdad.

Most importantly though, and at the crux of these renewed ties, lies a hope that with Saudi Arabia and Iran in dialogue, an eventual peace in Yemen is closer to being achieved after nine years of conflict between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthis. The Houthi coup and the war that followed have left hundreds of thousands dead, with about 24 million people, including almost 13 million children, in need of humanitarian assistance. Indeed, the most tangible result from these renewed relations could be a return to normality for the long-suffering people of Yemen.

But even as last week's development brings with it cautious optimism, Iran will need to prove that it can play the role of a responsible actor. For the breakthrough to have real meaning, actionable steps must be taken by stakeholders on both sides, in the pursuit of peace and stability in the region.

Published: March 13, 2023, 2:00 AM