Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to reopen their diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals and discuss resuming flights between them. The credit goes to China for brokering the landmark agreement between two bitter rivals. However, questions have arisen about whether this agreement would help reduce tensions in the region.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has had a detrimental effect on the stability of several countries in the Middle East, especially Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Both countries stand on opposite sides in each conflict in each region.
Here is a brief glimpse of KSA-Iran relations in these four war-torn countries.
Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in conflict in Syria since the Syrian war started in 2011. They took opposite sides as Iran supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with soldiers and money to fight against the opposition trying to overthrow him, whereas Saudi Arabia supported the opposing groups trying to get rid of al-Assad. As time went on, Iran’s support eventually helped al-Assad gain an advantage, and Saudi Arabia’s support for the opposition decreased. Now, Saudi Arabia and Syria are talking about becoming friends again. Other Arab countries used to stay away from al-Assad, but they have also resumed communication. Saudi Arabia has even said that Syria could join a group of Arab countries called the “Arab League” again.
On the other hand, Israel also wants to be friends with Saudi Arabia but continues to attack pro-Iranian military targets in Syria. Iran has actively accused KSA of collaborating with Israel in orchestrating such attacks.
KSA has supported Sunni prime ministers in Lebanon for many years, but when Michel Aoun became the president of Lebanon in 2016 and formed an alliance with the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, it caused tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Then, in November 2017, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri suddenly resigned while visiting Riyadh. Hariri blamed Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, for interfering in Lebanon and expressed his fear of being killed. Hariri later withdrew his resignation, triggering an eternal political crisis, which was largely seen as part of KSA’s efforts to counter Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia used to invest a lot of money in Lebanon, helping to boost its luxury tourism industry. However, as Lebanon’s economy started to decline, Saudi Arabia withdrew its support, which had a significant impact on the country’s financial situation. Lebanon has been facing a severe financial crisis for a long time. Its currency has lost around 90% of its value, while citizens remain without even basic services.
Religio-Politics in Iraq
Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a power struggle over the “correct religion” in Iraq. Iranian influence was previously kept out of the country by its former president, Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war with the Islamic Republic. However, since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iran has emerged as the most influential regional actor in 21st-century Iraq, filling a vacuum. It has funded and trained paramilitary groups aligned with Shia political parties, some of which operate as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). These were part of the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) assigned to fight terrorist groups like ISIS.
However, opposition to Iran is also growing in Iraq with Sunni groups rising against Shia parties. It presents a potential opportunity for Saudi Arabia to gain influence in the region. According to the latest reports, Iraq also seems interested in trying to have a better relationship with its Arab neighbors.
Will There Finally Be Peace in Yemen?
The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, intervened militarily in March 2015 to fight the Houthis, restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, and reverse what they said was the growing Iranian influence in the region.
The Iran-backed Houthi movement, mostly comprising of Zaidi Shia Muslims from northern Yemen, opposed Hadi’s government, making international headlines after seizing areas of northern Yemen in early 2014. Later, it moved southwards to seize the capital Sanaa, ultimately forcing Hadi to flee his presidential palace in Aden for Saudi Arabia.
Amid the political instability, several other armed groups gained power, mainly including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). Despite years of United Nations-brokered peace talks, they have failed to break the deadlock in Yemen. As of 2022, 14.5 million of the country’s 30 million people lacked sufficient food, according to the World Food Programme. Nearly half of the country’s children under 5 face chronic malnutrition. Additionally, at least 4 million people have been displaced by the 7 years of war.
As KSA’s historic relations with the US begin to dwindle, the Middle Eastern giant seeks to recuperate with Arab allies. It already ended its 3-year-long diplomatic rift with Qatar in 2021.