The Middle East is a region of strategic importance not just in its interactions and politics but in the international realm; the region has always been volatile and is prone to wars and conflicts. These wars and conflicts determine many interests and policies of regional and foreign powers. It can be claimed that the region comes with some circumstances which make it a highly intricate yet domineering region in the international realm.
Each twist and turn of history surrounded itself in the regional foyer, reveals high politics merging itself with security. Therefore, the politico-military order of the region happens to be a complicated web of externalities and internal dynamics.
KSA vs Iran
One intricacy which the region faces happens to be the internal Cold War between the two powerful regional states, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has become one feature around which political, economic, strategic and security dynamics revolve. Moreover, there is a quest for these two states with very different religious manifestations as well as political structures to establish their hegemony in the region. There happens to be a wide thought idea that the reason why there is an inherent tussle between the two states in the region is all because of their religious differences. Though the religious differences make up a large part of it these are not all. There is the idea of domination between the ‘Shia Crescent’ versus the ‘Sunni Axis’ but there has always been attached the Arab domination versus the Persian domination in the Middle East and the Persian/Arab Gulf. Attached to this structure is the idea of a power race between the two states, the impact of which has always been in the regional order.
A balance of power between the two states has emerged, the offshoot of which is an ardent arms race, balance of alliances and the utmost use of proxies. The idea as mentioned before regarding the ‘Shia Crescent’ versus the ‘Sunni Axis’ is one which can be seen as a combination of these things as most Shi’ite states look up to Iran and the Sunni states look up to KSA, tying up with them in alliances, proxy wars, and the arms race. There are open examples of this tussle; the most recent of which happen to be their proxy war in Syria and Yemen, the latter of which is a much more Cold War proxy. It is easily deciphered how in Syria, Iran has certain political and security interests which have prompted it as a key Assad ally along with some NSAs and other foreign states, such as Turkey and Russia. Initially, there happened to be some gaps between their relationships but the Peace Deal of 2017 is an example of a trifecta between them, while on the other side KSA, Egypt, the GCC and the US are on the same page.
In terms of the Yemen crisis, it was seen that Iran was favoring the Houthis while KSA was supporting the Yamens government. There has emerged a very queasy situation; because Iran and other Shi’ite states are supporting the Houthis and KSA and other GCC states, are Sunni, keep backing the other side. This was to give the situation a very sectarian touch. This situation was further aggravated with the Qatar Crisis because KSA and other GCC states blamed Qatar of not only supporting some radical and armed NSAs but it was claimed that it is politically backing Iran, which became a bitter pill for KSA to swallow.
This opened up the quagmire of a full-fledged conundrum in which there were many economic, political and diplomatic sanctions put upon Qatar in attempts to isolate it until it backs down from its stance. While all this was happening it was seen that Russia and Turkey jumped in with their support for the Qatari side which further put the situation in a very twisted diplomatic and political fiasco. This clearly showed the entire realm the pattern of not just alliance but who would support who in a battle of hegemony, at least following their interests. Ultimately, Iran versus KSA fire was intensified. However, the Qatar crisis has shown that it is not the religious/sectarian manifestation of the tussle between the two powerful regional actors but for the supremacy/hegemony of the regional order.
Prospects for Rapprochement
Therefore, the question is; can the antagonism between the two main regional powers ever be dampened if not fully put out. Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel because things had gotten embittered in 2016 when KSA banned the Iranians to come for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. But in 2017 it revoked this ban and Iranians made it to Mecca and Medina which, if anything is a gesture drenched in Soft Power relations between them. The main idea then is that the new Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman happens to be someone who wants an end to the Yemen crisis.
He is known for his diplomacy and there are certain voices which narrate that he might be willing to sit with the Iranians. This stance is then reciprocated by a faction within the Iranian side. This gives some hope and even insight as to any rapprochement between the two long-time and headstrong adversaries. But perhaps rapprochement is a big word to use for something like that because even though there might be some reciprocity in soft power, there is even more in hard power politics. The very fact that Iranian Nuclear Deal still is pinching for KSA and they find hope in Trumps anti-Iranian policies. Then, of course, it would mean that one side would be willing to end their quest for hegemony in the region, which is more of wishful idealism at the moment.
Implications of the Rapprochement
Nonetheless, there have been some voices which claim that it could happen sooner than later, in which case there will be certain implications. The first would be on the contemporary security of the region. It seems that in an event like a rapprochement between the two rival states, even if it for a short time, things might get settled through diplomacy. But the conflicts which are going on in full swing; Yemen, Iraq, and Syria might take more time to resolve. Here things get somewhat intricate because even though in a possible rapprochement, no side would actually back away from their core goals in the crises.
This might actually make their policies towards each other worse than before. Unless there is a diplomatic deal which is bid for resource and strategic grab-up for takes. Secondly, there is going to be the Israel factor; both states now will have very different perceptions of Israel. But in any case, Israel will be one state and utilizing a rapprochement there will be some political and strategic changes in the regional order. Then there is going to be a subtle change in the oil politics as well if there is any rapprochement between Iran and KSA at all which will put the Middle East on the track of vociferous economic activities of the world. Lastly, in any case, the prospects of peace will actually get dimmer because; one, Israel will become highly insecure and will go to any lengths to disrupt anything likely between Iran and KSA. And two, oil balance will actually make outside powers like the US and Russia turn colder towards the region and there will be more armed NSAs and a larger arms market in the region.
Therefore, as the Middle East remains at the helm of world politics and there can be many analyses out of one small detail. The idea of Iran-KSA rapprochement is similar and the idea of a post-war order is also inherent. But the region is one which follows core Real Politick and even though there are voices which claim that there could be a rapprochement between the two main contenders of hegemony in the Middle East, it remains more of a whim than anything else. The two states are politically and diplomatically very crude and to make any compromise in order to sit together might not work well, especially in a place where their history of rivalry goes beyond the adage of time.
However, KSA-Iran rapprochement is important for the larger interest of the Muslim world, normalcy in the regional politics, for the bilateral understanding and for the peace, prosperity, and development of the two nations. Therefore, there is an urgent need and desire to pull both countries for diplomacy and negotiations; in this regard, Pakistan, Turkey, and China can play their individual and collective role.
Co-Author: Amna Javed is a graduate of School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Presently she is engaged in her post-graduate research focused on Turkey.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.