Saudi Arabia and Iran: Enemies or Allies?

In the Middle East, the balance of power is shifting, and the dynamics between countries are changing. Shiite Iran and Sunni Arabia now find it advantageous to reduce the conflict. Against the background of the great powers’ varying weight in the region

What is happening between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the war in Gaza and the conflict with the Houthis in the Red Sea? The two religious powers in the Middle East, always described as entangled in the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, have actually come to agreements, some openly, others secretly. Agreements of convenience, perhaps, but very significant for the new geopolitics of the region.

The first turning point came last spring, when Riyadh and Tehran – thanks to Chinese mediation – restored diplomatic relations that were interrupted in 2016. This is the second time in just over forty years that Iran and Saudi Arabia have decided to restore diplomatic relations after interrupting them at various moments of crisis. This provides a glimpse of the importance but also the fragility of the agreement reached on March 10 with Beijing’s diplomatic intervention.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the two powers have competed for political and religious leadership in the region. There is no reason to believe that this rivalry, which has become a kind of cold war over the past ten years, will disappear overnight. In addition to the weight of history, the ideological bases of the Iranian Islamic Republic contradict Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests. This refers to the spread of the Islamic revolution in the Arab world through the establishment of Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the hostility of the Tehran regime towards the United States, considered the main enemy in the region, and the Iranian exploitation of the Palestinian cause, especially in conjunction with Hamas, in the Gaza Strip.

Suffice to consider the different relations of Tehran and Riyadh with their Gulf allies after the war, which erupted on October 7 with the horrific Hamas massacre of Israeli kibbutzim and the Jewish state’s devastating response that killed more than 31,000 people, wreaking death, destruction, and famine. Tehran, with its partners Hezbollah and the Houthis, sided with the Palestinians in Gaza, while Saudi Arabia, along with the Emirates, took a rather ambiguous position. If October 7 was perceived as a freeze on the Abraham Accords between the Arab states and Israel, this is only partially true. The Emirates continue their military and economic alliance with the Jewish state, whose first regional partner is Abu Dhabi, which is seen as a shield to counter Iranian influence, at a time when US commitments in the region are increasingly uncertain.

Why are some Arab countries so cautious about the situation in Gaza, aside from ritual condemnations followed by very little concrete action? Normalizing relations with Tel Aviv means gaining Western leniency for the inability of these absolute monarchies to respect individual freedoms and political rights. It also means gaining the support of the pro-Israel lobby in US Congress to get the green light for military supplies and investment in the region. Example: today Israel has a base in the Aseb region of Eritrea, giving the Emirates a concession to install Israeli-supplied military equipment on Dahlak Kebir Island.

That reality certainly doesn’t escape Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince who instigated the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, costing him hostility from US President Joe Biden. That is why bin Salman regularly states that there will be no formal normalization of relations with Israel without the establishment of a Palestinian state. But Riyadh remains very moderate in its condemnation of Israel’s war in Gaza, as the Wahhabi monarchy has already benefited from the unofficial rapprochement with Tel Aviv that began a decade ago.

What then is the value of Saudi Arabia’s agreement with Tehran? Saudi Arabia is in a complete transformation and no longer wants to pay the price for a clash, even indirectly, with Iran. The kingdom is still shaken by the Houthi attacks on Aramco oil company refineries in 2019 and the lack of US response. With Iran close to obtaining nuclear weapons and in the midst of Israeli-Iranian escalation, Riyadh prefers to proceed cautiously and not become the target of punitive expeditions by Tehran.

Saudi Arabia is primarily seeking to get out of the quagmire in Yemen, where it intervened in 2015 against the Iranian-backed Houthis. This military expedition, marking a break with the kingdom’s traditional caution, turned into a political and humanitarian disaster that threatened the security of the Wahhabi monarchy. And for the Houthis, the war in Gaza is an opportunity. Without diminishing the extent of the Yemeni rebels’ support for the Palestinian cause, their attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea should be placed in the context of the negotiations for a peace agreement between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, sponsored by Saudi Arabia itself and also viewed favorably by Tehran to strengthen its regional influence.

It should be noted that neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which also suffered a drop in revenue from ship passage rights in the Suez debacle, participated in the military missions in the Red Sea against the Houthis. Both Cairo and Riyadh have long been committed to normalizing relations with Tehran.

And here’s the thing. According to accredited sources in the Gulf monarchies, in late October, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reached a secret agreement with Crown Prince bin Salman equivalent to a non-aggression pact with the Houthis in exchange for Riyadh’s non-participation in the international naval coalition in the Red Sea. If you can’t truly be friends, you can at least avoid making new enemies.

Senior correspondent

Alberto Negri