GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Potential Benefits of Saudi-Iranian Detente
Paper Proposal Text :
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are arguably at an all-time low. While the outlook of their mutual relations for the last forty-odd years has been anything but promising, beginning a steep decline following the 1979 revolution in Iran, the current climate of intensified sabre-rattling is unprecedented, as are the regional repercussions of this geo-political rivalry. The two states back opposing sides of a conflict that is expanding and proving to tear the region apart, sowing deep discord within formerly cohesive communities. Heightened tones of sectarian and confrontational rhetoric are manifest, pitting the two major players in the Islamic world directly against each other. This deep and growing divide between the two undoubtedly causes ripples far beyond their respective borders; as the most dominant Islamic powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran ultimately wield unparalleled influence among numerous states, proxy groups and religious followers. The on-going conflict in Syria, its spill-over into Lebanon (as well as that country’s increasingly fractured socio-politics), and sectarian clashes in Iraq are all deeply affected and indeed fuelled by the Saudi-Iranian rift.

As the most populous, oil-rich and largest country among its Sunni Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia by default directs and encourages the collective shunning of Shi’a Iran, although this status quo has begun to witness minor shifts among increasingly independent and vocal, albeit smaller, Gulf states. The raison d’aitre for such antagonism stems from Saudi fears of Iranian influence among its own Shi’a population, as well as the desire within both governments to be the dominant power in the region. Iranian influence is indeed considered to be a major hindrance to Saudi aspirations for regional hegemony: the former encompasses a highly-educated population of eighty million, with a socio-politico-religious structure completely contrary to its own (Shi’ism as opposed to Sunnism; a parliamentary system as opposed to monarchism). The fact that the Islamic Republic is making in-roads with the Western world, including Saudi Arabia’s most important ally, the United States, and is slowly emerging from long-term international isolation, compounds existing concerns among the Saudis. The relative progress of nuclear talks have hitherto coincided with mounting public objection and resistance from the Saudi government, mainly aimed at its US ally and informal leader of international engagement with Iran, even as the country displays conciliatory gestures towards its Sunni counterpart. Indeed, since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has employed extensive outreach efforts towards its Gulf neighbours, both visiting and receiving leaders from Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

This paper bases itself on the premise that the first step towards a more stable and secure region, or at least the de-escalation of the conflict currently engulfing the Middle East, is meaningful rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Rather than viewing it as an underlying threat, Saudi Arabia should consider the potential nuclear agreement between the international community and Iran as a new chapter and opportunity for renewed dialogue. The imperative of securing a nuclear deal and shedding its economy of crippling sanctions means that the time is ripe for Iran to pursue a wide-ranging detente and develop meaningful relations, both in terms of diplomacy and trade, with its neighbours in the region. While other Gulf states have reacted positively to Iranian overtures, some of responding in kind, the key to enhancing Gulf-Iran relations ultimately lies with Saudi Arabia. In turn, while Iran has stated its desire to visit the Saudi kingdom and open dialogue with its neighbour, reportedly receiving a lukewarm response, it should endeavour to pursue such a track more rigorously if true rapprochement with the Gulf states is desired. History shows that the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia are capable of setting aside their differences and cooperating when their respective interests converged. In order for more meaningful and peaceful relations to prevail between the two, ultimate rapprochement must be seen in light of the mutual benefits that would accrue from friendship and cooperation. There is no shortage of literature on Saudi-Iranian rivalry and its concomitant effects on the wider Middle East. This paper therefore seeks to raise various points which support the argument that despite their wide-ranging differences, mutual cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran would ultimately serve to the advantage of the two powers. The paper addresses three major areas, seeking to outline the various ways in which both countries, by varying degrees, stand to gain from dialogue and collaboration in relation to these areas. These are: the realm of security (both regional and national), economy, and moral legitimacy respectively. The underlying principle of this argument is that the current status quo of Saudi-Iranian relations is unsustainable if there is ever to be long-term stability and security in the wider region. In the absence of steps towards cooperation between the two, we will continue to witness an overall rise in the spread of sectarianism, Islamic radicalism and the huge loss and displacement of lives as a result of regional conflicts.