The detente under way between Riyadh and Tehran has left many observers wondering if this thaw could pave the way for regional integration between the GCC states and Iran. After almost four decades of constant conflict in the Middle East, regional players are at least signalling they are in the mood for de-escalation. Whether this translates to active co-operation remains to be seen.
The rapprochement between the region’s long-term foes is certainly on fast-track mode. After their initial agreement in March that was surprisingly penned in Beijing, the kingdom and Iran are set to re-open embassies — shut down since 2016 — in the coming weeks. The pace at which this political normalisation is taking place is very rapid when compared to the two years of back-channel talks, during which Tehran and Riyadh were deadlocked and unable to move forward.
Riyadh’s opening to Tehran follows the decision by the UAE to re-engage Iran since 2019 and to recently reappoint ambassadors. Oman has retained relations with Iran, Kuwait has rekindled its ties, and Bahrain is seemingly edging closer towards normalisation. Iraq — a country caught between neighbouring Iran and Saudi Arabia — has long called for its neighbours to restore stability and co-operation.
The determination with which Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have now marched forward suggests they are serious about reducing tensions. The test case will be in Yemen — where the players will need to prove at a minimum that the regional dimension of the civil conflict can end. In parallel, it will be important for regional powers to engage in softer confidence-building measures that can strengthen their political commitment and lessen the risks that can derail the positive diplomatic momentum.
Confidence-building measures are also going to be thorny. A number of areas of possible soft co-operation remain highly securitised. For example, there have been suggestions that the regional opening with Iran provides opportunities for economic co-operation. Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al Jadaan noted recently that the kingdom could invest in Iran “very quickly”. However, such economic linkages to Tehran will remain highly vulnerable to geopolitical tensions, and notably US secondary sanctions that will continue to create major hurdles for Iran’s economic integration into the region.
One area where confidence building is more feasible, and less likely to face external pressure, is in the remit of climate co-operation. For decades, Iran, Iraq and the GCC states have been alert to worsening and deadly enemies: dust storms, rising temperatures and water scarcity. Dust storms have become a regular burden that affects health, jobs and transport routes across the region. Temperatures in the Middle East are rising twice as fast as the global average. The droughts and poor water management across the region are altering ecosystems and agricultural landscape that is undermining food security.
The Middle East is home to a hugely youthful population, that is acutely aware of the grave challenges facing them — this is especially so for the region’s women whose health and livelihood are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Each year, sand storms, heatwaves and droughts cost the region billions, undermine health conditions and force displacement of people. Without imminent intervention, these problems are set to become more endemic and could trigger new rounds of violence across the region.
The silver lining is that there is already some recognition and appetite in the region, both at the leadership level and bottom up to tackle climate challenges. In July, Tehran hosted a climate conference that was attended by Mariam Al Mheiri, the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment. Although this meeting was politically significant, much more effort is required to agree on concrete and practical steps to reduce environmental challenges.
As a first step, senior leaders need to commit to such a mission. Importantly, Iran should be encouraged to finally ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement (remaining as one of few countries that has not yet done so). This would be a symbolic but significant signal from Tehran that it is serious about fighting climate change.
In exchange, Saudi Arabia could invite Iran to become an endorsing country of the Middle East Green Initiative (MGI), which describes itself as a “regional effort led by Saudi Arabia to mitigate the impact of climate change on the region and to collaborate to meet global climate targets”. Riyadh has allocated $2.5 billion to support MGI projects, and some of this could be invested in Iraq through joint initiatives that involve Iran.
Saudi Arabia is also reportedly collaborating with Unesco on a regional climate change hub, promoting studies on the implications of climate change and setting up regional early warning centres for extreme climate events. Iran could be invited to more actively engage with this process. Further down the line, Iran’s integration with the GCC states also offers huge opportunities for job creation in the climate and energy sphere by tapping into Iran’s significant tech-savvy youth.
This year provides a convenient hook to press for regional co-operation on shared climate challenges. Cop28, hosted by the UAE, is a suitable platform to invite regional stakeholders for meaningful discussions to set climate goals for the Middle East. These stakeholders must not only include senior leadership, but also technocrats, civil society, scientists and relevant businesses from Iran, Iraq and the GCC states. Political sign off must be given by the region’s leaders for non-governmental actors to begin and intensify knowledge sharing and co-ordination in the field of climate change. Specific targets must be agreed among the region, and governments will need to be held to account for meeting them.
Climate change has well and truly hit the Middle East. To overcome the gravest risks posed, an active cross-border approach is required. The geopolitical tensions and wars that have long plagued the region, however, have blocked co-operation on these critical issues. Regional leaders must now use the recent breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Araba to address the serious and existential climate threats facing the Middle East. Co-operation and confidence building in this field, could start a process of regional integration that serves the prosperity of ordinary citizens across the Middle East.