The signing of a joint trilateral statement by senior national security officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran in the presence of Chinese officials in Beijing on March 10 took many observers of regional politics by surprise, and generated a spate of analyses over what, if any, geopolitical consequences the agreement may have. It is certainly the case that Beijing’s role in sealing the deal to restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, which were severed in January 2016, adds a new dimension to the regional political landscape. Much may depend on what happens during the two-month follow-up period, how actively China remains involved, and whether the agreement leads to any tangible or durable improvement in political ties across the Gulf. Early indications suggest a will, both in Saudi Arabia and in Iran, to repair relations, which aligns with China’s interest in maintaining a workable balance in regional relationships that can offset the lack of progress on issues such as the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Rather than focus on what the Saudi-Iran deal means for China, or for the trajectory of US-Gulf relations, this paper examines how the agreement may impact the other five Gulf States that together with Saudi Arabia form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although the deal was negotiated on a bilateral basis by representatives of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported that a successful resumption of diplomatic relations is expected to lead to a GCC-Iran summit that will take place in China later in 2023. Historically, the six GCC states have struggled to reach a consensus on sensitive matters of regional and foreign policy, including relations with Iran, Iraq, or Yemen. This was evident in 2019 when officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates responded to a spate of attacks on maritime and energy targets by launching their own separate channels to Iran rather than seeking a collective GCC approach.
Conditions in the Gulf suggest that there are some grounds for optimism that a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have positive spillover effects for the region. The GCC is moving beyond the most difficult decade in its 42-year history, which was marred by serious disagreements among its member states in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar for a nine-month period, and again between June 2017 and January 2021, when the same three states, along with Egypt, placed Qatar under a political and economic blockade, the longest and deepest intra-Gulf rift in decades. The latter crisis saw the four blockading states demand that Qatar scale back its relations with Iran and close its diplomatic missions in the country as the first of 13 sweeping “conditions” that, had they been accepted, would have turned Qatar into little more than a vassal state. However, the Gulf crisis ended in settlement in 2021 and relations have improved markedly in the two years since the Al-Ula Declaration that formally ended the matter.
In early 2017, then Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah reached out to Iran to de-escalate the tensions with GCC states that had soared after the January 2016 storming of Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. This took the form of a letter to then President Hassan Rouhani that sought to establish the basis for dialogue between the GCC and Iran. Kuwait’s Foreign Minister, Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah delivered the letter and commented that, “There is a genuine willingness and desire to have normal and fair relations with Iran,” and that, “Opening a channel of communication will…bring benefit to both sides.” The Iranian leadership responded positively, with then Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating that Iran was ready for dialogue and that “we should aim together for a future that looks different.” President Rouhani subsequently visited Kuwait and Oman in February 2017, and Emir Sabah also traveled to Muscat to meet with the now deceased Sultan Qaboos bin Said to discuss ways to dial down tensions in the Gulf.
Attacks on shipping and energy facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE brought home the risks of being on the front line of confrontation.
On that occasion, while Emir Sabah’s letter was sent on behalf of the GCC, regional and international circumstances militated against a successful outcome to the call for dialogue. Donald Trump had just taken office in the United States and Saudi and Emirati leadership drew close to a presidential administration that favored confrontation rather than cooperation with Iran. Trump subsequently made his first foreign visit as president to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, and delivered a speech in which he declared that “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.” Two weeks later, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved against Qatar, analysts in Kuwait and Oman wondered if they might be next, given the emphasis on ties with Iran being one of the pretexts used to justify the blockade. Saudi and Emirati officials subsequently welcomed the Trump administration’s May 2018 decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA and adopt a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran instead. However, attacks on shipping and energy facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE the following year brought home the risks and vulnerabilities of being on the front line of confrontation, especially as Trump pointedly refused to come to their defense.
Circumstances are quite different this time around. Shaken by the 2019 attacks and shocked by the United States’ lack of response, Saudi and Emirati leaders have, both in words and actions, demonstrated an intent to achieve a workable coexistence with Iran that was lacking in 2017. This became clear in their responses to spiking US-Iran tensions in January 2020 after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, then commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, by an American drone strike in Baghdad. Rather than join in the drumbeat of accusatory rhetoric, the UAE called for “rational engagement” as Anwar Gargash, then UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, stated that, “Wisdom, balance, and political solutions must prevail over confrontation and escalation.” The Saudi leadership went further, and sent then Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman Al Saud to Washington to make the case in person for a de-escalation in tensions and a policy of restraint. Officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh also reached out to Iranian counterparts, directly and indirectly, to establish channels of communication and dialogue that paved the way, in fits and starts, for the China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal to restore relations.
The fact that the Saudi and Emirati outreach to Iran in and after 2019 was conducted separately, rather than as part of a regionwide initiative, is reflective of the resilience of national interests and bilateral relationships vis-à-vis a pooled or multilateral approach within the GCC. And yet, the fact that, for their own specific reasons, the two most powerful Gulf States are committed to de-escalation opens up more of a substantive space than when the push for diplomacy was driven by Kuwait and Oman. This does not necessarily mean that the GCC can take the lead in crafting a new approach, and it may be the case that the signs of competitive rivalry in Saudi-Emirati relations ensure that the GCC as an institution remains less than the sum of its individual members. It does, however, indicate that the passing in 2020 of Sultan Qaboos and Emir Sabah, the two “mediators-in-chief,” was not the end of Gulf-wide diplomacy.
What happens over (and beyond) the two-month period envisaged in the Saudi-Iran agreement for the restoration of relations will be closely followed in other GCC capitals, especially for signs that the deal is implementable for both sides, and for whether it leads to outcomes on other regional issues, such as Yemen. Officials on both sides of the Gulf are well aware of previous periods of rapprochement, which reduced tensions momentarily but failed to address deeper points of concern, such as interference in internal affairs or support for proxy regional groups. Any progress in the Oman-facilitated talks between Saudi and Houthi representatives in Yemen may provide an indicator of whether the 2023 deal could fare better than others, such as a 2001 security cooperation agreement that was referenced in the Beijing statement. Repairing ties of trust and developing a genuine regional community will take far more than signing a statement and reopening an embassy, however significant these steps are as symbols.
Agreement Aligns with GCC Wishes
To the extent that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran strengthens the trajectory of dialogue and diplomacy that has been seen in much of the broader region since 2020, the Beijing statement aligns with policy priorities in Gulf capitals that seek to engage rather than confront Iran. This includes Kuwait City, Doha, and Muscat, which, each for its own reasons, have sought to balance the maintenance of working relationships with Tehran with political and security commitments to both fellow GCC states and the United States. Oman has long served as a facilitator and intermediary for back-channel messaging between the US and Iran, most notably in the prelude to the P5+1 negotiations that culminated in the JCPOA; and more recently there have been signs that Qatar has performed a similar role. Qatar and Iran share the largest non-associated gas field in the world, which straddles their undersea maritime boundary, and officials in Doha would certainly benefit from a regional de-escalation as they move into the implementation stage of a two-phased expansion of gas production, which has assumed critical importance in light of the disruption to European and global energy markets caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The UAE has its own bridge-building exercise with Iran, and with COP 28 set to take place in Dubai , officials will seek to minimize any destabilizing regional pressures.
The UAE has its own bridge-building exercise with Iran, and with the COP 28 climate change conference set to take place in Dubai in November and December 2023, officials will seek to minimize any destabilizing regional pressures that could potentially mar the gathering. Memories are still fresh in Abu Dhabi of the three missile and drone attacks on the emirate that originated from Yemen in January 2022, and that cast a shadow over the oft-touted notion that the UAE is one of the safest and most secure places to live, work, and do business in the region. Although the UAE redeployed most of its forces out of Yemen in 2019, it remains indirectly engaged with political and military forces in the country’s southern regions, and will likely frame any assessment of the Saudi-Iran deal through a prism that analyzes implications for the future of the war, and for a political process. If, as is likely, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was motivated to reduce Iran’s ability to act as a spoiler while he redoubles a focus on delivering Vision 2030 and associated “giga-projects,” the UAE may take more than a passing interest in their progress, especially as said projects move Saudi Arabia into direct competition with Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the travel, tourism, hospitality, and entertainment sectors.
Bahrain is likely to be the laggard in repairing ties with Iran, just as it was the slowest to rebuild relations with Qatar after the signing of the Al-Ula agreement in 2021. The Bahraini government has long viewed Iran as just as much a threat to its internal security as it is an external matter of foreign or regional policy, and entrenched attitudes within the policymaking establishment in Manama may be difficult to dislodge. That said, the domestic political landscape in Bahrain is calmer now than at any point since the uprising in 2011, and there is a sense that the country has at last “moved on” from the events of more than a decade ago. This was illustrated by a wide-ranging government reshuffle in June 2022, which saw the appointment of nine Shia ministers, something many would have considered unlikely in the immediate post-2011 period, even if the levers of power remain under the control of the ruling Sunni Khalifa family and its close allies in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. And yet, those relationships may guide the Bahraini authorities in following the Saudis’ lead by exploring their own diplomatic restoration with Iran, just as Bahrain was the only other GCC state that mirrored the Saudis by severing ties with the Islamic Republic, rather than merely downgrading them.
Indeed, the next two months and beyond will help clarify how the Saudi-Iran agreement will impact intra-GCC relations, as well as those between the council and the Islamic Republic. For now, signs are positive that the accord may usher in a new trans-Gulf period of reconciliation that will facilitate political and economic cooperation. Having suffered the vagaries of discord and mutual distrust and having witnessed the failure of previous Saudi-Iran agreements, the latest accord appears to be the development that all Gulf countries have been waiting for.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Chinese Foreign Ministry