Riyadh meeting

Updated October 17, 2019

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IN Riyadh, on the second leg of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘facilitation’ trip to Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is not known how the rulers of the kingdom reacted to the Pakistani offer of bringing together the cross-Gulf rivals.

Mr Khan met the Saudi king and crown prince and reportedly ‘advised’ them to peacefully resolve regional issues.

The Foreign Office was quiet on the response from the Saudi royals, while as per a bland statement in the Saudi press, the two sides “discussed ... the latest developments at the regional and international arenas”.

This is, of course, not much to go by, and only those who were privy to the huddle can better comment on how this country’s efforts to reduce tensions between two major Muslim states were perceived in Riyadh.

Earlier, Mr Khan received a comparatively more positive response to his offer in Tehran, with the Iranians stressing that a resolution of the Yemen issue could pave the way for better relations with Saudi Arabia.

Read: Welcome peace gesture by Pakistan, says President Rouhani alongside PM Imran

Regardless of the reactions, the prime minister’s efforts at mediation should be lauded, as a violent Saudi-Iran confrontation would have a destabilising effect on the entire region, and this country would certainly not be immune from its effects.

As it stands, Riyadh and Tehran are locked in a battle for influence in the Middle East, with the theatre stretching from the Levant to the Gulf. This rivalry dates back to 1979, when Iran exited the American camp and adopted Islamic revolutionary rhetoric as its guiding principle in statecraft. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, remained anchored to the West, and the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran has been rocky ever since, with the Arabs accusing Iran of ‘exporting’ its revolution, while the Iranians have criticised the pro-West Gulf monarchies for advancing American interests in the region.

Today, both sides have competing interests in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and if a shooting war were to break out, the front line would be stretched across these countries.

The recent Houthi strike targeting Saudi oil facilities — which Riyadh and the US have blamed on Iran — sent alarm bells ringing across the world, while an Iranian tanker was also attacked off Saudi Arabia’s western coast a few days ago by unknown assailants.

It would be correct to say that an intense game of nerves is being played in the Gulf, and one wrong move or miscalculation by either side could set the region on fire. Therefore, more efforts to bring Riyadh and Tehran together are needed.

Whatever their geopolitical differences, Saudi Arabia and Iran must work out a modus vivendi and assure each other of mutual security. Dragging outside powers — such as the US — into the equation will only complicate matters, ie regional security should be left to the regional states. Perhaps ending the brutal Yemen war could be a first step towards a more peaceful region.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019