On 10 March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced their intention to restore diplomatic relations over a two-month period, in a deal brokered by China. Riyadh’s reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad in Syria is also underway, and its behind-the-scenes engagement with Israel has increased.
This rapprochement with Iran and other regional efforts matter because they shed light on a significant region-wide trend of de-escalation that has been underway since the resumption of high-level UAE–Iran relations in 2019. In the wake of geopolitical tensions and distraction, it also marks a shift towards direct Middle East regional conflict management which – should it last – is a first for countries in the region.
Driven by a combination of conflict fatigue, COVID-19, a focus on economic security, continued concern over declining US engagement, and increased geopolitical competition, states across the Middle East have engaged in an unprecedented pattern of reconciliation to protect their interests amid fluctuations in the international order.
New US priorities on regional security
A key driver of this new approach is certainly connected to regional perceptions of inconsistent US security support. This sentiment is not new but has been mounting since the Obama administration articulated new US priorities directed towards China and Russia.
The Trump and Biden administrations both continued this policy and demonstrated similar signs of distraction when the US withdrew from Afghanistan while calling on its partners in the Middle East to share the burden of regional security. The outpouring of Western support for Ukraine while little is being done to stem threats from Iran has further confirmed a perception across the Middle East that US support is declining, despite continued assurances by US policymakers.
Countries in the region have also realised that confrontation with Iran has not only failed to deliver the desired results but has also exposed them to economic vulnerabilities. For the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular, the June 2019 attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure caused a change in thinking.
Moreover, multiple rounds of domestic protests and maximum pressure international sanctions have also failed to get Iran to adjust its regional posture or reduce support for regional proxy groups.
Reaching out to Iran was an opportunity to hedge against further attacks and directly manage, rather than outsource, their security. Five rounds of bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, organized by Iraq, sought to stabilize tensions.
While these discussions stalled due to the stalemate over the JCPOA and ongoing protests in Iran, they paved the way for Beijing’s intervention. This has led to an unprecedented wave of diplomatic contact and subsequent outreach across the region.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been particularly involved in efforts to put out regional fires. Abu Dhabi has taken the lead in engaging with Tehran, Ankara and Damascus, with Riyadh following closely behind. Notably, the UAE’s National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed – the country’s brightest spark – has led the way and proven to be an adept tactician by dousing, if not completely extinguishing, the flames.
Abu Dhabi also made a bold move in signing the Abraham Accords with Israel in September 2020. Although the two countries had long-established relations behind the scenes, formalizing its relationship with Israel allowed Abu Dhabi to rapidly advance its goals in finance, technology, healthcare, education and defence.
Although Abu Dhabi signing the accords was conditional on Israel not annexing parts of the West Bank, it managed to bypass the centrality of Palestine as the region’s most pressing challenge. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will continue to backchannel with Israel, but will only normalize under the right conditions and with the right incentives.
The normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran marks the formal end of seven years of heightened tensions and could have important consequences for the war in Yemen, Iran’s role in the region and regional stability more broadly. While the move is unlikely to lead to a major reset in regional relations – and Beijing’s capacity to remain involved is unclear – it has given rise to a pause in which some advances could be made.
Although Yemen is a difficult nut to crack, a significant step toward a longer-term truce is being negotiated. Underpinning the ceasefire and dampening down cross-border activity would provide Saudi Arabia with some respite and lessen Iran’s frustration with Iran International and other Saudi-funded broadcasters hostile to the Iranian regime. Bahrain is expected to follow Riyadh’s lead and resume dialogue with Tehran.
More productive examples include the end of the Qatar crisis. The 2021 Saudi-led Al-Ula agreement led to a significant reset of GCC ties following the 2017 blockade of Qatar. In this instance, Riyadh demonstrated its appetite for fresh foreign policy interventions and, with the backing of Kuwait, rode a little roughshod over UAE and Bahrain sensibilities – all in the name of lowering regional temperatures.
A knock-on effect of warming Saudi-Qatar ties has been the strengthening of ties between Egypt and Qatar, which hit an all-time low following Sisi’s seizure of power in 2013. Relations between Qatar and Bahrain have also been restored. In other words, the change in regional environment has allowed states locked in combat – both literally and metaphorically – to lay down their arms and start a dialogue.
Restoring ties with Syria and ending long rivalries
Elsewhere, the UAE has taken the lead in restoring Arab state ties with the Assad regime in Syria, with Jordan in lockstep. Although this is a step-by-step process, news that Saudi Arabia will soon open its consulate in Damascus suggests that normalization – despite US and EU sanctions – is well underway.
In fact, states including Egypt are showing willingness to restore Syria to the Arab League and are expected to invite Assad to attend the 2023 Arab League summit. Although it is unlikely that Gulf Arab states will bankroll Syria’s reconstruction – they are much too canny for that – they will support early recovery, on the condition that Assad curtails the Captagon trade to the Gulf.