News of renewed diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia following a seven-year hiatus came as a surprise to Israel and the West. After all, Saudi Arabia was long perceived as firmly anchored in the anti-Iran camp, along with the United States and Israel, while the fear of a nuclear Iran fueled an informal alliance between the Saudis and Israel.
Moreover, the gradual US withdrawal from the Middle East was perceived as strengthening cooperation by the Sunni Arab states with Israel against the Iran threat. Israel’s attempts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia as an extension of the Abraham Accords were therefore perceived as a timely and feasible goal, with the only question being the cost Israel and the American mediators would be willing to pay.
Reports of the surprising price being sought by de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for normalization with Israel emerged earlier this month just as news broke of the Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement. MBS wants US security guarantees in the event of an attack on Saudi territory and, just as surprising, American – and by implication, Israeli – support for its homegrown nuclear program.
Contrary to popular belief, the Palestinian issue was not a stumbling block in contact between the sides, with MBS expressing willingness to settle for a modest Israeli concession in favor of the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia had a high price, so Riyadh plays the US and China against each other
The Saudi demand for security guarantees was not unusual, as the US had previously granted Israel, Jordan and Qatar the status of a major non-NATO ally. However, its demand for assistance in developing its own nuclear program set a precedent, since Israel has never agreed to any Middle Eastern country developing nuclear capability, even if only for peaceful purposes.
In fact, all plans to achieve nuclear capability in the Middle East (with the exception of Iran, so far) were foiled either by superpower opposition or by an Israeli military response (Iraq, 1981; Syria 2007) or, as in the Libyan case, the cessation of a nuclear program (2003).
Iran and Saudi Arabia announced the resumption of diplomatic relations on March 10, a day after the surprising news emerged of advanced Israeli-Saudi normalization talks. Iran and Saudi Arabia had been conducting low-level talks for two years on Iraqi and Oman soil.
It can be assumed – and at this stage, it is only speculation – that MBS had played China and the US against each other. After realizing that Israel and the US could not or would not pay the exorbitant price he was demanding for normalization, he turned to the Chinese channel to consummate the long-brewing deal with Tehran. China as the mediator obviously cashed in on the deal.
The renewal of Saudi-Iran relations is clearly a blow to relations between Riyadh and Washington, in addition to the simmering tensions between them stemming from Saudi involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the crown prince’s more recent refusal to comply with President Joe Biden’s request for increased oil production to offset oil shortages and price hikes resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The China-mediated Iranian-Saudi rapprochement is a turnaround in regional relations, as it heralds a more aggressive Chinese policy in the Middle East, stemming from its growing strategic and economic (mainly oil) interests in the region.
The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, reflected in the coming resumption of diplomatic relations, as well as the exchange of high-level visits, is seen by many as a dramatic shift in Saudi regional and international policies. However, a more nuanced assessment is required – one that examines events from Riyadh and not from Washington or Jerusalem alone.
HISTORY SHOWS that Saudi Arabia acts in accordance with its own interests, which shift in accordance with changing circumstances. Israel and the West in general tend to analyze the global and regional environment in binary terms: are you with us or with our enemies? The Cold War was perhaps the most striking example of this dichotomy – those who did not support the US were perceived as Soviet bloc supporters, even if they adopted an independent stance.
On the other hand, the countries of the region and especially the wealthy Gulf states, which face a variety of dangers and challenges frequently switch alliances. For the most part, they prefer risk-free and by implication, unaligned policies.
Even when they choose a camp, they try to stay close to the fence so that they can climb it again. For example, the United Arab Emirates, which signed the US-mediated Abraham Accords, reestablished diplomatic relations with Iran in 2022. It also maintains extensive trade relations with it.
The UAE, especially Dubai, has become the gateway for goods to Iran in light of the international sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The volume of trade between the countries reached about $15 billion (NIS 54.8 b.) in 2021 and is constantly growing. About two-thirds of Iranian imports in recent years entered through the UAE: computers and electronics, cars, fruit and food products, petroleum distillates, raw materials for the plastics industry and a long list of other raw materials and products. Thus, the UAE has become the world’s largest exporter to Iran.
Relations between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt with Qatar are another case in point. The four severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017 and boycotted Doha but ended the boycott in early 2021, even though most of their demands were not met. Moreover, Oman maintains good relations with Iran and at the same time with the US and even with Israel, as manifested in its approval (February 2022) of Israeli airline flights over its territory.
In other words, instead of an either-or policy, the Gulf states prefer a both-sides policy and especially avoid military support for either side of a conflict. This was the main reason the UAE ended its military involvement in the Yemeni civil war in early 2020.
Similar logic prevails in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which is expected to yield handsome economic dividends for Saudi Arabia. The current trade volume between the two countries is negligible and incommensurate with its great potential, especially with regard to Saudi exports of oil distillates, raw materials for the plastics industry, chemicals, agricultural fertilizers and more. Iran, it should be remembered, is desperate for new sources of imported goods.
What is more, Iran and Saudi Arabia no longer compete for a share in the global oil market given the fuel shortages and relatively high prices prevailing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Chinese interest in this reconciliation is clear: it can only lead to a drop in oil prices even if the Russia-Ukraine war continues.
Moreover, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could serve as a basis for dialogue to end the decade-long war in Yemen. In the short term, it will also stop Houthi attacks from Yemen on Saudi targets.
Will the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement undermine Saudi-Israel relations? Judging by the UAE’s flourishing relations with Israel in parallel with its extensive economic relations with Iran, the answer is clear.
Equally, it can be assumed that the clandestine relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue since Saudi Arabia must also secure its Iranian flank in the event of disaster in this arena. It can be assessed that deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian front or a Saudi desire to advance its nuclear plans are more likely to affect Israel-Gulf relations than the Iranian issue.
Prof. Elie Podeh is a Mitvim Institute board member and teaches at Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Prof. Onn Winckler teaches at Haifa University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.