Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salam has reached out to Iran with a rare message of friendship and peace. In a recent TV interview, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that he wants “good relations” with Iran, striking a much softer tone than has been seen in recent years between the two regional rivals. The crown prince said Saudi Arabia wants Iran to help push the Middle East towards prosperity and that the kingdom is working with its regional and global allies to find solutions to the issues that plague the relationship.
Those issues, unfortunately, are manifold. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of ‘negative behaviour’ such as running a nuclear programme and supporting ‘outlaw militias’. Both nations are also involved in several proxy wars, most notably in Yemen. However, it wasn’t always this way. Despite problems dating back to at least the time of the revolution in Iran, the threat of direct war was not a major concern for observers until the mob attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran five years back — an incident that was blamed on the execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The Saudis broke off diplomatic relations soon after the incident, and there have been few prospects of a thaw since then.
So the warmer tone — coupled with recent reports of backdoor talks — might bode well for the region. Just last week, several foreign news outlets reported that the Saudis and Iranians were holding secret talks in Iraq, facilitated by the Iraqi government. The Saudis flatly denied the reports, and Iraq did not comment, but the Iranian response was more measured — neither confirming nor denying, but only ‘welcoming dialogue’. Still, the fact of the matter is that the relationship had gotten so cold that this is the first time in years that we have even had an ‘unreliable’ report of talks.
Among the primary factors behind the change in approach are domestic concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the new US administration. The pandemic has taken a toll on the economies of both countries. Policymakers would undoubtedly want to focus their energies on recovery rather than the threat of war. Meanwhile, American President Joe Biden has renewed the Obama-era rapprochement policy towards Iran, shifting from the hostility harboured and demonstrated by Donald Trump. Conflict went well with the Trump approach, but not so much with Biden’s.
Indeed, recent reports suggest that these geopolitical changes influenced the increasing desire to settle the war in Yemen and other issues, such as the instability in Lebanon, where Tehran and Riyadh both wield massive amounts of power behind the scenes. Both countries’ interest in Iraq will also factor in, although unnamed Iraqi officials have told some media outlets that the ‘denied’ talks are currently only focused on more direct bilateral issues.
But whatever the influencer, a thaw between Riyadh and Tehran will also bring warm feelings in Islamabad — ties with both countries are of high importance. Pakistan has been in the unenviable position of being a ‘man-in-the-middle’ for far too long, shuttling diplomats between both countries to avoid offending one when dealing with the other. Better ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be a win-win for Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2021.