THE surprising change in tone of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman towards Iran is indeed a welcome development in a region torn apart by war and geopolitical rivalries. In a recent TV interview, the kingdom’s de facto ruler said he aspired to have a “good and special relationship” with Iran, though also chiding Tehran for its “negative behaviour”. This conciliatory tone is far from the warlike statements the prince was issuing not too long ago, threatening to take the battle to Iran.

Over the last few years, Saudi-Iranian relations — hardly cordial in the post-1979 period — reached their nadir when Riyadh executed Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Baqir Al Nimr, in retaliation to which a mob ransacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. Moreover, across the Middle East, both powers have been on the opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum. Saudi Arabia remains part of the American geostrategic alliance in the region, whereas Tehran has been the biggest adversary of this bloc in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Also, both countries have supported opposing parties in the Syrian civil war and the Lebanese political arena, while Riyadh and Tehran are fighting a brutal proxy war in Yemen. Given these realities, a Saudi-Iranian detente is a welcome development.

The major question is: what has prompted the crown prince to change course? Some say the change of guard in Washington may be the trigger. While the Trump administration gave a practical carte blanche to the Saudis, Team Biden does not appear to be as accommodating. Perhaps the realisation has dawned in Riyadh that instead of depending on outsiders to settle regional issues, the countries of the Middle East need to sort out their own problems.

The Saudi prince’s interview came after reports had emerged that Saudi and Iranian officials had met in Iraq to discuss a host of issues. Some observers have said senior intelligence and military officials from both sides were involved, while other key Arab states, including the UAE and Egypt, were also reportedly talking to Iran. This process must be carried forward in the interest of regional peace.

Primarily, it is hoped some accord can be reached to end the destructive war in Yemen, and to start rebuilding a shattered Syria. Any Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will also have a positive impact on Shia-Sunni relations across the Islamic world, and both Riyadh and Tehran need to put in their best efforts to make the effort succeed.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2021

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