SEVERAL official pronouncements over the last few days have confirmed that efforts are underway behind the scenes to mend the broken Saudi-Iranian relationship. On Monday, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said that talks had indeed been held to improve relations between the cross-Gulf rivals. An official of the Saudi foreign ministry had a few days earlier also affirmed the fact that dialogue was under way. Meanwhile, the key indicator that ties were set to improve was a TV interview Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave late last month, in which he said the kingdom sought to have a “good relationship” with the Islamic Republic, though Riyadh’s de facto ruler added that he was wary of Iran’s “negative behaviour”. This was seen as a distinct change in tone, as earlier the Saudi leadership had adopted a hawkish stand towards Tehran, pledging to take the battle to Iran.

While the signals are definitely positive, no one should expect an immediate transformation in the bilateral relationship from combativeness to exchanges of brotherly feelings. Officials of both foreign ministries have been cautious about the prospects, with the Iranian side saying “let us wait [and] see”, while the Saudis have observed that it would be “premature” to comment on specifics. Perhaps the change in tone, particularly in Riyadh, has been triggered by the change of guard in Washington. The Trump administration pursued an antagonistic policy towards Iran, pampering Israel and urging America’s Gulf allies to forge a united front against Tehran together with Tel Aviv. However, with the arrival of Team Biden, the language and emphasis — particularly where the Middle East is concerned — of the White House has changed. Perhaps those that matter in Riyadh have realised the mood in the US, and have decided that the best way to sort out issues in the region is for the countries of the Middle East to reach a modus vivendi themselves without depending on outside players. Apparently, the Saudi rapprochement with Qatar is part of the same strategic thinking.

Both the Saudis and the Iranians must realise that good relations between them are critical at this juncture not only for the bilateral relationship, but also for peace and stability of the wider region and within the Muslim world. For starters, they can help end the devastating war in Yemen, where both capitals support opposing sides. Moreover, at a time when Israel is once again mercilessly pounding the Palestinians, unity within the Muslim world is of the essence, to send a clear message that the slaughter of defenceless people will not be tolerated. There is a wide ideological and geopolitical divide between Riyadh and Tehran. But this does not mean both states have to live in a perpetual state of confrontation. Both must aim to respect each other’s sovereignty and work for de-escalating tensions across the Muslim world.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021

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