The Middle East has been an ugly place for some time. It has become humanity’s favourite region for killing each other although Vladimir Putin is attempting to return that honour to Europe.
It was good news therefore to hear that two of the region’s major belligerents have decided to kiss and make up. Or at least shake hands and start talking.
With China mediating, last week they agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies. They also agreed to not interfere in each other’s internal affairs and to activate a security cooperation agreement signed in 2001. The three countries issued a statement expressing “their keenness to exert all efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security.”
Let’s hope they really are keen to enhance regional peace because they have both been busy aggravating regional violence. Saudi Arabia has been fomenting a horrific civil war in its neighbour Yemen and Iran has been propping up the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s equally horrific civil war. Iran also supports militias in Lebanon and Iraq.
They have supported opposite sides in these conflicts as they vie for leadership in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia champion of Sunni Islam and Iran champion of Shiite Islam. Both have powerful influence in these two civil wars and if they honour their words they could end them which would indeed create a more peaceful and secure Middle East.
And they would be doing themselves a favour. Conflicts have been a drain on the Saudis’ treasury and reputation, deterring the investment the country needs to reduce its dependence on oil.
Iran’s economy has been devastated by harsh sanctions while it faces continuing domestic unrest. It could use a break from the added burden of its regional mischief-making.
The neighbours are also pleased. Iraq welcomed the agreement. A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates commented, “The UAE believes in the importance of positive communication and dialogue among the countries of the region towards consolidating the concepts of good neighbourliness.” Oman’s Foreign Ministry called the agreement a “win-win for everyone.” Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain and Turkey all concurred.
As did non-state entities including the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah and, of particular importance, Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The rebels’ chief negotiator said “The region needs the resumption of normal ties between its countries for the Islamic nation to reclaim its lost security as a result of foreign interference.”
And speaking of foreign interference, the United States, the dominant force in the region, sat out this dance. It simply wasn’t in a position to bring these two together, being a buddy of the Saudis while its relationship with Iran hit bottom under Trump and hasn’t improved under Biden.
And no doubt oil, that great lubricator of both machinery and diplomacy, favours China. The Chinese are the biggest customer of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. buys ample from Saudi but it sanctions Iranian oil.
This is a coup for China and they deserve full credit if the agreement does indeed bring some measure of peace and security to this tortured region.