On 10 March 2023, a Joint Trilateral Statement was issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China announcing an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months. The two countries affirmed respect for the sovereignty of states and emphasized on adherence to the non-interference in the internal affairs. Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed that the Foreign Ministers of both the countries will make arrangements for the return of their ambassadors and discuss means of enhancing bilateral relations. The two countries also agreed to implement the bilateral Security Cooperation Agreement signed in 2001 and the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, signed in 1998.[i]
Fig 1: Joint Trilateral Statement by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the People’s Republic of China
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, official account on twitter @KSAmofaEN
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at loggerheads over the latter’s suspected role in inciting protests in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, support for the proxy groups in the region, fueling instability in the region. On the other hand, Iran perceived Saudi Arabia as a dominant opponent that has been a major actor in inviting external players in the region. However, the bilateral diplomatic ties broke completely after the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016 when the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by the Iranian protesters. Since then, Oman and Iraq have hosted rounds of dialogue between both sides during 2021–2022.
The deal brokered by China has a huge significance within the Arab world as well as outside the region. First and foremost, the major beneficiaries of the deal are the bilateral partners. For Saudi Arabia, the deal would ensure a respite from Houthi drone attacks from across the border on the oil establishments including ARAMCO. Riyadh has been at the receiving end for numerous attacks by Houthis since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015.[ii] Iran’s mission to the United Nations has stated that the deal will help end the Yemen war.[iii] Iran has expressed its political support to the Houthis and considers it as part of the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel.[iv] Similarly, for Iran the deal implies greater acceptance in the region. Tehran has been reeling under the US sanctions and would appreciate a neighborhood that is willing to develop bilateral partnerships. Iran’s currency showed a gain immediately after the restoration of ties between the two neighbors[v] despite new sanctions imposed by the US on the 39 Iranian entities on 9 March 2023.[vi] There were indications in the past of thaw between Iran and other Gulf countries;[vii] however, the Saudi-Iran deal will likely provide required impetus to the evolving ties.
Secondly, the deal symbolizes China’s quiet diplomacy in the region and its evolution from a preferred economic partner to an emerging political ally. The deal indicates China’s emergence as a strong mediator in the West Asian affairs; China has also announced to host the Iran-GCC summit in 2023.[viii] It is premature to say whether China can be a part of the regional security architecture, but if the deal sustains the test of time in coming years, it would be interesting to look at Beijing’s political maneuvers in the region. Significance of the deal also lies in the fact that it indicates the changing role of global actors in the region. Since the extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-Saudi relations have gone downhill.[ix] The bilateral Red Sands exercise between the US and Saudi Arabia to be held in mid-March, as believed by some scholars is undertaken with a view to demonstrate US capabilities in counter drone technology and to prevent Riyadh from buying the same from China.[x] Until now Russia was considered as the only power with potential to replace the US’ role as an external actor in the region; however, the Saudi-Iran deal brands China as an important political player. It is to be noted that the deal was announced right after Xi Jinping securing third term as China’s President.[xi]
Thirdly, the deal is significant for the regional countries and will have long-term implications for the instability in Yemen and Syria. The conflict in Yemen might take a favorable turn with restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the government and Houthi group have been receiving covert political, military and economic support from Riyadh and Tehran respectively. The deal also has the potential to hasten the acceptance of Syria into the Arab fold. Bashar al Assad–led Syria was isolated in the wake of the decade-long crisis, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the only countries rejecting Syria’s entry to the Arab League in November 2022. However, as Syria struggles to recover from the devastation caused by the earthquake, Arab leaders have shown willingness to open diplomatic offices in Damascus. Egypt signaled willingness to restore ties with Syria during its Foreign Minister’s visit to Damascus in February 2023.[xii] Two days prior to signing of the deal, Saudi Foreign Minister stated that Syria could return to the Arab League but not yet.[xiii] One can hope for a shift in Saudi stance in light of the deal; Iran and Syria share historic ties and, along with Moscow, Tehran has been a major supporter of the Assad government since the beginning of the crisis.
The deal has been welcomed by a number of countries, international institutions and non-state groups alike. The United Nations, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, Houthis, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority have appreciated the deal and hope that it brings peace to the region. Maldives has welcomed the trilateral statement and has subsequently announced to restore diplomatic ties with Iran.[xiv] If successful, Saudi-Iran deal has the potential to have wider impact for the regional security; however, for now an appropriate approach is to wait and watch its course in the months to come.
*Dr. Lakshmi Priya, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Joint Trilateral Statement by the People's Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Kingdom of Sweden, March 10, 2023, available at http://se.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgxw_0/202303/t20230311_11039241.htm (Accessed on March 12, 2023)
Joint Trilateral Statement by the People's Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia on tweet from twitter handle @KSAmofaEN https://twitter.com/ksamofaen/status/1634180277764276227
[ii] Timeline of Houthi Attacks on Saudi Arabia, United States Institute of Peace, September 16, 2019, available at https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2019/sep/16/timeline-houthi-attacks-saudi-arabia (Accessed on March 12, 2023)
[iii] Samy Magdy, Iran says deal with Saudi Arabia will help end Yemen's war, Washington Post, March 12, 2023, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/03/12/yemen-conflict-iran-saudi-arabia-deal-ceasefire/d98a506e-c0eb-11ed-82a7-6a87555c1878_story.html (Accessed on March 15, 2023)
[iv] Thomas O Falk, The limits of Iran’s influence on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Al Jazeera, March 8, 2022, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/8/the-limits-of-irans-influence-on-yemens-houthi-rebels (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[v] Massoud A Derhally, Iran's rial gains after diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia restored, The National, March 12, 2023, available at https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/2023/03/12/irans-rial-gains-after-diplomatic-relations-with-saudi-arabia-restored/?utm_campaign=MECGA%20Soft%20Launch&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=249861121&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8FkGsYqWuidFFPFv5d_rOnXXCi8rhjWyS2QdhaGirm3xfI9DlzrRW0akTpCDA6m0X6C9YdQIiSVWwJJXMOyB-ntbJQxA&utm_content=249861121&utm_source=hs_email (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[vi] Treasury Targets Sanctions Evasion Network Moving Billions for Iranian Regime, US Department of the Treasury, March 9, 2023, available at https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy1330 (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[vii] Thaw in Iran-Gulf Relations, United States Institute of Peace, February 7, 2020, available at https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2019/oct/22/thaw-iran-gulf-relations (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[viii] China to host summit of Persian Gulf Arab Countries and Iran, Iran Press, March 13, 2023, available at https://iranpress.com/content/75006/china-host-summit-persian-gulf-arab-countries-and-iran (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[ix] Lain Marlow, Understanding the ups and downs of US-Saudi relations, Washington Post, October 18, 2022, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/understanding-the-ups-and-downs-of-us-saudi-relations/2022/10/07/235ae722-4693-11ed-be17-89cbe6b8c0a5_story.html (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[x] Jared Szuba, US, Saudi Arabia to conduct first counter-drone exercise without allies, Al Monitor, March 5, 2023, available at https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/03/us-saudi-arabia-conduct-first-counter-drone-exercise-without-allies (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[xi] Nectar Gan, Xi Jinping secures unprecedented third term as China’s president in ceremonial vote, CNN, March 10, 2023, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/09/china/china-xi-jinping-president-third-term-intl-hnk/index.html (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[xii] Kinda Makieh, Firak Makdesi, Egypt's Foreign Minister breaks ice with visits to Syria and Turkey, Reuters, February 28, 2023, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/egypts-foreign-minister-visits-syria-first-time-since-war-2023-02-27/ (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[xiii] Saudi Foreign Minister: Syria could return to Arab League, but not yet, Reuters, March 8, 2023, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-foreign-minister-syria-could-return-arab-league-not-yet-2023-03-07/ (Accessed on March 13, 2023)
[xiv] Maldives to resume diplomatic ties with Iran: Statement, Islamic Republic News Agency, March 13, 2023, available at https://en.irna.ir/news/85055842/Maldives-to-resume-diplomatic-ties-with-Iran-Statement (Accessed on March 13, 2023)