by Alessandro De Pascale

On March 10th, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement in Beijing to restore diplomatic relations, that had been interrupted in 2016. On March 29th, Ryad also announced its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Euro-Asian cooperation forum dominated by Russia and China in an anti-US capacity. On 15 September 2020, at the White House, then-US President Donald Trump brokered the signing of the Abrahamic Accords. Israel thus initiated diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the first Gulf states to join Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) in establishing relations with the Jewish state.

We discussed this with Vittorio Maccarrone, a long-time contributor to Italian publication Il Caffé Geopolitico, which has been analysing geopolitics and international relations since 2009.

How would you sum up the foreign policy of the young Saudi crown prince?

Saudi Arabia is moving towards diversification of its allies and has always tried to see its relations, not only regional but international, in such a way as to defend its interests, especially securitarian ones. It no longer trusts the United States, even though it hosts US soldiers and bases. It no longer has confidence in the security that Washington could guarantee it, but continues to engage in dialogue with the West. In 2019, Saudi Arabia suffered a more or less direct attack on its oil infrastructure from Iran. The US, then led by Trump, sent more troops to Ryad but did not strike directly at Tehran to deter it from further action against the Kingdom. Which was what Saudi Arabia was trying to get from the US. Since that day, the Kingdom has been trying to initiate a détente towards Iran.

What is the Saudi objective of this rapprochement with Iran?

To arrive at a détente of relations or at least a freezing of tensions between the two countries, so as to secure its oil exports. Which it is worth remembering are its vital source of income. On this it is worth remembering that Saudi Arabia has not participated in the sanctions against Russia imposed by the West. On the contrary, it has, for example, increased diesel exports to Moscow. Added to this is their concern over the possible development of Iran’s nuclear programme. In short, with this rapprochement, Saudi Arabia is trying to have one less enemy in the Middle East. This is the furrow in which the Saudi Kingdom is moving regionally.

In your opinion, what will be the effects of this agreement?

It is a tactical rapprochement, not a strategic one, but it has immediately created a domino effect in the Gulf. In the short and medium term it may create the conditions for relative calm in the Middle East. But in the long term, total stabilisation will be very difficult. Between Iran and Saudi Arabia there has always been a rivalry to achieve hegemony in the Middle East that has created destabilisation throughout the area. Look at Syria, Yemen, the attacks on not only Saudi but also Emirati energy infrastructure. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. In Yemen, the Houthis, although not a direct emanation of the Houthis, are linked to Iran. For the first time since 2016, Tehran appointed its own ambassador to the United Arab Emirates on 5 April, something that had also already been done in Kuwait. In regional circles in the Middle East, some diplomatic sources, so nothing official, are also talking about what may happen with Jordan or Egypt. Al-Sisi, let us remember, is an ally of Saudi Arabia. The rapprochement between Iran and Bahrain should not be underestimated either, and even with Oman the conditions seem to be in place.

Instead, what is Iran’s current foreign policy?

Iran perceives itself as an empire and has a narrative, also largely shared by the population, of influence at the regional level. Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, Iran has stopped engaging in dialogue with the West. In fact, it has been forced to break off relations. Because the US first decided to dialogue with Iran through the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, then during the Trump presidency it tore it up. To the US policy of maximum pressure on Iran, no longer having the negotiating (hence diplomatic) way, Tehran responds in two ways: on the one hand it proceeds with uranium enrichment, on the other hand it raises the tension by carrying out military actions throughout the Gulf and attacking Saudi and Emirati infrastructures. Iran has also increased its support for the Houthis in the war in Yemen against the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Hadi government. However, it has now realised that it has too many enemies, that it is totally surrounded and is looking elsewhere.

Will this agreement affect the war in Yemen, which has been going on since 2015, with Saudi Arabia and Iran on opposing sides?

According to rumours, Iran has told Saudi Arabia: ‘Let’s try to solve it diplomatically, we will no longer support the Houthis’. In return ‘you bring me out of isolation. You help me, I’m not saying to have friends in the Middle East, because the struggle for hegemony between the two nations will return in the coming years, but in the meantime let’s talk to try to solve it diplomatically. Nothing is certain, although negotiations can be reached.

What was China’s role in reaching this agreement?

China is acting as the facilitator. China was good at inserting itself at a time when there was already a search for dialogue. There are two areas. The first is a symbolic, very scenic role on China’s part. The narrative of presenting itself as a world power that seeks stability, peace and dialogue. Then there is the geopolitical role. China believes in the US decline at the hegemonic level and thus also in a multipolar transition of international relations, of which it speaks openly. It has realised that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East in favour of the Indo-Pacific theatre. Added to this, after the invasion of Ukraine, is the containment of Russia in Eastern Europe. This is why China has decided to give the actors in the Gulf its own signal of presence. Finally, there is the economic aspect: Beijing has very close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have intensified over the years. Both are also suppliers of oil to China, which is the second largest economy in the world.

In 2020 it was Israel’s turn, in trying to restore relations and have fewer enemies in the area. Were they adopting the same strategy?

Yes, with the Abraham Agreements, which of course excluded Iran. The Gulf countries are trying to start a phase aimed more at pragmatism, rather than an ideology that sees Israel as absolute evil. Iran has decided to remain on that position, unlike Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have been pushed in this direction by America and in this case by Trump, who has tried in his own way to pacify the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel were actually already talking, for instance about the Iranian nuclear programme. There were contacts, in an indirect way.


Cover photo © May Chanikran/