After years of tension and proxy conflicts, Saudi Arabia and Iran are showing the first signs of détente. A Saudi delegation led by intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan met with Iranian officials in Baghdad on 9 April, even though the two countries severed diplomatic relations in 2016.
Al-Humaidan also visited Damascus, where he met with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk on 4 May. This was the first time they had met since 2012, when relations between the two countries had ended and the Syrian civil war had begun.
Finally, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu met with his Saudi counterpart, prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, on 10 and 11 May in Riyadh, in an effort to ease tensions between their respective countries.
Erdogan wants to show that there is only one Islam, one that does not work in the West,” says Quentin de Pimodan, an analyst at the Research Institute for European and American Studies.
Relations between the two countries have been at an all-time low ever since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Few details have emerged regarding the content of the meeting, except for a tweet from Cavusoglu in which he refers to discussions on “bilateral relations” and “important regional issues” such as “the oppression of the Palestinian people”.
Discussions between the Saudi and Iranian delegations have been kept secret. And neither Riyadh nor Damascus have commented on Al-Humaidan’s visit to Syria.
Policy of calming tensions
This policy of calming tensions aims to avoid isolating Riyadh, while the reopening of talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signals Tehran’s possible return to the international scene. The agreement would lift Iran’s economic sanctions in exchange for abandonment of its nuclear programme. The Islamic republic would then regain access to approximately $100bn in frozen assets and the right to export oil once again. This could help bring an end to the country’s economic crisis.
If this agreement proves successful, Iran hopes to make regional rivals accept its permanent influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and – to some extent – Yemen. Riyadh and Tehran have been waging proxy wars for many years in these countries.
This prospect horrifies Riyadh, especially as Iran has demonstrated its capacity to be a security nuisance. In September 2019, it was responsible for high-precision attacks on the Abqaïq and Khurais oil sites. Tehran has also attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, thereby sending the message that only it can ensure maritime security in the region.
“Since Iran has the upper hand, [US President Joe] Biden wants to end the policy of ‘maximum pressure’, and since the war in Yemen is dragging on, Saudi Arabia has every interest in sitting down at the negotiating table with Iran,” says Umar Karim, a researcher at the University of Birmingham.
The article continues below
Get your free PDF: Top 200 banks 2019
The race to transform
Complete the form and download, for free, the highlights from The Africa Report’s Exclusive Ranking of Africa’s top 200 banks from last year. Get your free PDF by completing the following form
Saudi Arabia hopes that Iran will put pressure on its Houthi allies to end the war in Yemen, in which it has been embroiled for six years. Riyadh proposed a ceasefire in March, but the Houthis are demanding that the Saudi-imposed air and sea embargo be completely lifted.
“The limited contact between Saudi and Iranian intelligence services serve as a means of neutralising the kingdom’s most imminent threat, which are Houthi-led missile and drone attacks. They increased their number of attacks in the first few months of 2021,” says Cinzia Bianco, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, particularly in reference to the attacks on the Aramco facilities, the Saudi oil company, in Riyadh back in March.
Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold
In Syria, Riyadh expects Damascus to play a mediating role in easing tensions with Tehran. The Islamic republic has strengthened its ties with Assad’s regime through military and financial support during the war.
But the objective is also to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, which will help limit Iran’s influence. This is a difficult task, as the Arab powers that supported the opposition have been ostracised in a terrain that is now shared between the Russians, Iranians, Turks and Americans.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) got a head start when it reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018. Riyadh does not want to be left on the sidelines, as Assad is unsurprisingly expected to be re-elected for a fourth term in the 26 May presidential election. In fact, a second meeting between Syrian and Saudi officials is to take place in June.
To counter Iran’s influence, Saudi Arabia may move closer to Turkey. “Communication with Turkey is part of a Saudi strategy to reinvigorate a wider regional network, which would be particularly useful in case Iran is further strengthened by resuming the JCPOA,” says Bianco.
Towards a Riyadh-Ankara axis?
But Riyadh and Ankara will have to overcome their differences. These two regional heavyweights are fighting over the leadership of Sunni Islam. While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia’s MBS has introduced social and religious reforms to attract tourists and foreign investors as part of his Vision 2030 programme.
“Erdogan wants to show that there is only one Islam, one that does not work in the West,” says Quentin de Pimodan, an analyst at the Research Institute for European and American Studies. “It has a real resonance in Muslim civil societies, which the Saudis take very seriously.”
Above all, MBS has stopped trusting Erdogan since Khashoggi’s murder. Turkey’s President has apportioned some of the responsibility for the journalist’s murder to the Crown Prince, albeit without naming him directly.
But Riyadh has a means of exerting pressure on Ankara. Due to the informal boycott of Turkish products, Turkey’s imports to Saudi Arabia have plummeted by 98%. The kingdom has also announced that eight of its Turkish schools will close down.
Ankara, which is diplomatically isolated and in the midst of an economic crisis, is seeking to renew ties with Cairo and Riyadh. A Turkish delegation visited Egypt for the first time since the fall of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The Turkish presidency has toned down its hostile media campaigns against the Gulf and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Egypt. It even went as far as expressing “respect” for the way Riyadh handled the Khashoggi murder trial, which implicated several Saudi officials.
This Saudi diplomatic shift is also an opportunity for the kingdom to improve its image, which has been tarnished by its aggressive foreign policy and its repression of political opponents, especially the US. “The Saudis want to use all possible means to show the Biden administration that they contribute to peace and stability in the region,” says Karim.
In addition to relaunching the JCPOA, the US President has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, removed the Houthis from its list of terrorist groups and released the Central Intelligence Agency report that holds MBS responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. These measures contrast significantly with the approach of his predecessor Donald Trump, who was not very keen to hold the Saudi leader to account on the subject of human rights.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options