Voices from the Arab press: The secret to Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 A TEHRAN newspaper sports a cover photo of the Iranian and Saudi Arabian flags.  (photo credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters)
A TEHRAN newspaper sports a cover photo of the Iranian and Saudi Arabian flags.
(photo credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters)

The secret to the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia & Iran

Okaz, Saudi Arabia, March 25

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What is the key to restoring relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran? 

Could it be the rise of China’s regional influence, with the geopolitical and economic difficulties it brings, or the war in Ukraine? Is it the kingdom’s demands being met, with an emphasis on respecting the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs? Could it be the strategic importance of the Middle East, its vital shipping routes to the global economy, the need to ensure security and stability, and the desire to halt destabilizing activities in the region? These are all plausible reasons for the two countries to restore relations. 

There are several reasons behind the return of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first is due to the wise Saudi policy, which is based on long-term strategic interests instead of short-term ones. This is despite the efforts of some global powers to draw the region into alliances that suit their interests. 

Washington was eager to make Israel the alternative force to ensure regional stability, which would benefit Israel through its arms sales and allow for its infiltration into the Gulf security system. This is why former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett viewed the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a “political victory” for Tehran and a “fatal blow” to attempts to construct a regional alliance against the Islamic Republic. 

 A US marine watches as a statue of Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad’s Firdaus Square, 2003.  (credit: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File) A US marine watches as a statue of Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad’s Firdaus Square, 2003. (credit: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File)

Saudi Arabia did not take a passive approach in the face of attempts by Western powers to alter the regional balance of power. Instead, it followed the principles of good neighborliness and diplomatic dialogue in order to settle its differences. Musaed Al-Aiban, the Saudi national security adviser, recently reiterated his commitment to dialogue, declaring that the country would “adhere to the principles of dialogue and diplomacy to resolve differences” with its neighbors. Prince Faisal bin Farhan likewise affirmed the kingdom’s vision of utilizing “political solutions and dialogue” to ensure peace in the region. 

The war in Ukraine has marked a shift in global dynamics, ushering in a multipolar world. This shift has enabled the Middle East to play a more significant role in global and economic policies. The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran caused fear and panic among regional actors such as Hassan Nasrallah, who stated: “We were surprised by the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but we are confident that this agreement will not be to our detriment.” 

The New York Times reported that the US has become so embroiled in the affairs of its regional partners that its role as peacemaker has been taken over by China. The secret to restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran lies in several key details. Most prominently, the kingdom’s vision of preferring political solutions and dialogue over war and conflict. This has been confirmed by Saudi Arabia and serves as a reminder of the two countries’ shared destiny and common goals. 

Working together to build a model of prosperity and stability will benefit the entire people of the region. – Osama Yamani 

Journalists & normalization

Al-Ahram, Egypt, March 22

I strongly object to the decision passed by the Journalists Syndicate’s General Assembly prohibiting the normalization of relations with Israel. This is a wrong decision, both professionally and nationally. Professionally, journalists are not ordinary citizens. Their job is to research news and verify facts and events, particularly in countries that are opponents or competitors to their own. As an Egyptian citizen, I would like to be informed of the events in Israel, even if I disagree with its policies or its existence altogether. 

There are journalists from all over the world, including from Arab nations, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, as well as Palestinian journalists. There are also Arab channels for them, and correspondents in Israel. Therefore, I find this professional laziness, disguised as enthusiastic opposition to the Israeli entity, to be unacceptable. 

Secondly, this decision is also wrong on a national level. Who is looking out for the Egyptian people and citizens by preventing them from knowing what is happening in Israel? This reminds me of the atmosphere before the 1967 war, when knowledge about Israel was taboo. Do you remember the great journalist Ahmed Bahaa el-Din, who was inspired by the 1967 defeat to publish his famous book, Israeliyyat? Following the release of the book, the Egyptian public was finally able to become informed about Israel. 

Finally, this decision of the Journalists Syndicate is legally wrong, as no institution has the right to prevent any citizen from having a legitimate right to travel to Israel! For informational purposes only, it is worth noting that the Taba crossing between Sinai and Israel witnessed the movement of more than half a million tourists from Israel last year, with 124,000 of them visiting Sharm el-Sheikh, and 54,000 coming to Cairo to explore its streets and enjoy its attractions. – Osama Al-Ghazaly Harb

Israeli government: Enemy of Iran or its ally?

Al Rai, Kuwait, March 24

The Palestinian people are not an “imaginary people,” as Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich suggested at a recent symposium in Paris. His remarks provoked strong reactions from Jordan, which began to question the viability of the peace agreement signed between the two countries in 1994. 

The Palestinian people are more present than ever in Palestine since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, despite the fact that a senior Israeli minister considers them “imaginary.” This is because Israel eventually agreed to sign the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people who seek liberation and the restoration of their rights. 

Despite Yasser Arafat’s many mistakes, he nevertheless was able to uphold a Palestinian identity for a people who have continued to resist occupation. The Palestinian people will remain. Finance Minister Smotrich will eventually depart. What Israeli leaders such as Smotrich fail to understand is that living in superstitions is one thing, but what is happening in Palestine is another. Israel cannot rid itself of the Palestinian people, no matter what tactics it employs. 

Moreover, Israel’s problem has become internal rather than with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is occupied with his political future and how to evade imprisonment, and is not concerned with the future of Israel in the region, nor the opportunities it is missing. Netanyahu is doing whatever he can to stay out of court, after being accused of corruption. He remembers the image of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in prison after being found guilty of bribery. 

It appears that Netanyahu is resigned to being at the mercy of right-wing ministers like Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, rather than being beholden to the judiciary and justice. This approach will ultimately lead him nowhere and he will eventually be confronted with the reality of a Palestinian people living on Palestinian land. This is an indisputable fact. As the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was known to say, the Palestinian people have a presence on the political map of the region, and one day they will appear on the geographical map of the Middle East. 

There is an unavoidable question facing Minister Smotrich: what to do with the 7 to 8 million Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River? This question reveals the internal crisis gripping Israel. President [Isaac] Herzog’s concerns about a possible civil war suggest a deep division between the religious and more secular Jewish populations, who have nothing to do with one another. Modern, hi-tech Tel Aviv stands in stark contrast to this conflict, with its success story and liberalism, which leave no room for error. 

More important than the internal dissent within the Israeli military is the wariness of other countries in the region, especially Jordan, to establish normal relations with the Jewish state. This has caused questions to arise concerning the relationship between Israel and the current US administration, which appears to be dissatisfied with the Netanyahu government’s lack of internal cohesion. What kind of government is this, which seeks to transfer the judiciary to its loyalists? 

This government, controlled by settlers, is willing to ignore whatever is left of the Oslo Accords. What is this government that seeks to challenge Iran’s nuclear program while simultaneously preventing any form of diplomatic engagement with its neighbors? It remains unclear if Netanyahu and his government are truly invested in confronting the “Iranian threat.”

Smotrich’s comments display an alarming lack of awareness of what is happening around him. Internally, Israel must consider its relationship with the Palestinians, who cannot simply be erased from the land of Palestine. Regionally, Israel must consider its peace agreement with Jordan, as well as its recent Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. 

Finally, Israel must consider its relationship with the US and the military and political coordination between the two countries when it comes to Iran and its regional ambitions. The actions of the Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, appear to be contradictory. Is this government an adversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran or one of its covert allies? All the measures implemented by the finance minister, thus far, seem to be aimed at advancing Iran’s expansionist ambitions. Who in the region can still trust Israel? – Khairallah Khairallah 

Memory of the Iraq War

Al Ittihad, United Arab Emirates, March 24

Twenty years ago, in March 2003, the US launched an invasion of Iraq, with the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, and fostering a more humane and democratic nation. Today, the invasion of Iraq is widely seen as one of the most egregious mistakes in US foreign policy in recent history. 

Since 1941, the US has been involved in six major wars. Of those, World War II was the most devastating and destructive. Despite the immense number of casualties and the heavy economic toll, most Americans deemed it a “just war.” Five years after the end of World War II, the Korean War, now known as the “forgotten war,” was not a decisive conflict. Yet, as it was supported by the UN Security Council, it prevented the communist regime in the North from taking over the entire Korean peninsula. Today, South Korea is one of the most prosperous nations in the world. 

The US military intervention in Vietnam began with limited assistance programs, but during Lyndon Johnson’s administration hundreds of thousands of US soldiers were sent to fight in ground battles. Due to most of the recruits being inexperienced, casualties were high, and the war became increasingly unpopular. Following the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the war escalated and spread to Cambodia. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, oversaw the humiliating withdrawal from Saigon in April 1975. Following this, the Americans vowed never to fight another land war in Asia. 

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush spearheaded a successful operation to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion. This resulted in the destruction of major Iraqi fighting units. Despite this, Saddam Hussein continued to maintain a firm grip on power in Iraq. 

The period from 1991 to 2001 was the height of American global power. The Soviet Union had backed the Gulf War and subsequently disbanded, in part due to its unsuccessful war in Afghanistan. This effectively marked the end of the Cold War. Then came September 11, 2001, when the US experienced a devastating terrorist attack. In response, the nation launched a military operation in Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban regime. However, the US also decided to remain in Afghanistan to rebuild the country.

Regrettably, the resources necessary to bring about this endeavor became unavailable when Washington chose to go to war with Iraq. The beginning of the Iraq War saw some success; Saddam Hussein was apprehended, and the US assumed control of the nation. However, due to mismanagement and a series of strategic missteps, attempts to establish a representative government were unsuccessful, leading to civil war and the loss of thousands of American and Iraqi lives. Additionally, these efforts have cost countless sums of money. 

In 2011, the US formally put an end to its direct military engagement in Iraq, though leaving behind special forces and aviation for the purpose of suppressing the ISIS insurgency. Furthermore, the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan continued until the abrupt withdrawal in the summer of 2021. 

Opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has emboldened those who oppose US involvement in Ukraine. Critics argue that the neoconservatives who championed the decision to invade Iraq remain influential. Additionally, a coalition of left-wing anti-war organizations and neo-isolationists within the Republican party are using the failure of the Iraq war to challenge “the endless American wars.” 

The conclusion is that, so long as the US does not have troops fighting in Ukraine, public support for President Joe Biden’s policy of arming Ukraine will remain. Yet, if there is a significant reversal in the war and an increase in hostilities, the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan will be invoked to limit US intervention and seek a solution with Russia. – Jeffrey Kemp 

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.