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Saudi Arabia is in the midst of one of the most significant shifts in regional alliances in decades. Until now, the kingdom maintained close relations with the US and Western nations, while also forging close ties with Sunni states, including, in particular, the Gulf States. Starting in 2011 with the Syrian civil war, the Saudis sided with the Sunni Islamist resistance and they funneled billions into arming and supporting it. For a decade or more, the main Saudi rival in Syria was Iran, in what became a sectarian battle between the Sunni and Shia (Alawites) communities and their respective backers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran’s regional strategy involved cultivating Shia proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah), and Yemen (Houthi) , and Gaza (Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Though not Shia, the Gaza resistance factions were “enemies of my enemy” and therefore, “friends”). It sent Revolutionary Guard commanders and personnel to Lebanon and Syria to guide the fighting against the Assad (Alawite) regime. It sent thousands of shipments of missiles and other advanced weaponry to Hezbollah via Syria. Since much of it was intended for potential Hezbollah hostilities with Israel, the latter has attacked these convoys thousands of times, mainly at their transshipment points in Syria.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has clearly made some sweeping changes in his strategic outlook. The most critical pivot has been regarding Iran. Until now, the two countries have been sworn enemies and routinely attacked each other directly and via proxies. Iranian drones attacked a major Saudi oil refinery and knocked out production for weeks. Saudi Arabia funded, to the tune of billions, a joint Israeli-US sabotage operation against Iranian nuclear facilities, which caused significant damage. Israel and the kingdom forged close ties which led to the Abraham Accords, which led to Israel’s first diplomatic relations with the four Arab states who joined. Though Saudi Arabia never signed up, none of this could have happened without Saudi backing.
But then something remarkable happened: A few weeks ago, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers announced that they had come to an understanding that would lessen hostilities and eventually lead to a resumption of relations, which had broken off eight years ago. Under Chinese auspices, the Kingdom and Islamic Republic resolved many of their differences. The Chinese benefited from being a major buyer of Saudi oil and from a $400-billion trade deal with Iran. Even more stunning was last week’s invitation for the aging King Salman to visit Tehran. Salman is in ailing health and has delegated most of the affairs of government to his son. His participation is a clear indication of the importance the Saudis attach to the visit. The last such visit by a Saudi monarch was 25 years ago (1997). Another indication of how deep enmities run.
The Arab League will meet soon with a resumption of relations with Syria one of the major items on the agenda. None of this could happen without Saudi support. There has been a prisoner exchange between Houthis and Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces, undoubtedly at the kingdom’s request. The Syrian foreign minister was recently welcomed in Riyadh, a precusor to the resumption of relations between both nations. A Hamas delegation was hosted in the kingdom for the first such visit in a decade.
The Saudis, Iranians, Syrians, Chinese, and Yemeni Houthis are all the winners in this realignment. But there are two major losers. Saudi Arabia has been a close US ally since the end of WWII. But over the past decade, interests have diverged and mistrust has caused these relations to deteriorate. Both Israel and the Saudis were, at one time, chafing to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Presidents from Bush to Obama said No. This left the Saudis feeling that if one of their closest allies didn’t share their alarm and priorities, they should begin looking elsewhere for that support. Initially, that is what threw them into Israel’s arms as they pursued a mutual alliance against Iran.
The US is also the loser in the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, gets all the credit for this diplomatic coup. China stands to at least rival, if not supplant the US in terms of its influence in the oil-rich region. In the increasing rivalry between China and the US, the Chinese have clearly won this round.
Israel is the other major loser. Bibi Netanyahu must have been apoplectic when he heard the news that Iran and the Saudis were resuming relations. It left him holding the bag as the only remaining implacably hostile enemy of the Islamic Republic. The US, which has no stomach for military confrontation against Iran is in the midst of an Asian pivot toward its global rival, China. The Saudis are out of the game. This severely limits Israel’s geostrategic and military options. Thus, Netanyahu’s ranting against Iran both in Israel and globally is now old news.
As he faces a profound crisis at home, which threatens both his government and his premiership, the loss of the Saudi relationship is yet another failure the Opposition can use in its effort to topple them both. The Abraham Accords, which Netanyahu heralded as a triumph coveted by prime ministers for decades, has suddenly become almost irrelevant. What he once saw as a key component of his political legacy lies in the dust.
In addition, the reconciliation with Iran is an admission by the Saudis that the past maximum hostility approach, developed as part of an alliance with Israel and the US, didn’t work. Iran was not brought to its knees and remained a potent threat to the kingdom. The Saudi Crown Prince eventually came to realize that unending hostility and factionalism in the Arab world hurt all states, but perhaps Saudi Arabia most of all.
Like the Abraham Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, touted as one of the major achievements of the Obama administration, also seems dead. Given Iran’s success in orchestrating a rapprochement with its former regional rivals, and its newfound Chinese patron, it will have little or no interest in negotiating a new deal with the Americans. It is yet another major failure of the Biden administration which had, in the last few months of the Rouhani regime, a golden opportunity to sign such a deal. But the opportunity was squandered.
A word of caution is in order. Two countries at each others’ throats for four decades don’t immediately become bosom buddies. There will still be jockeying for position and power, and perhaps even a return to some of the sabotage tactics used in the past. Nor will the proxies of each of them immediately lay down their arms and proclaims the end of hostilities. There is still a long road ahead. But this is an excellent start.
Israel, if it was smart, would make its own regional recalculation considering that its former allies have now found more desirable dance partners. But it never takes such things into account in determining its geo-strategic approach. It goes it alone and follows its own interests with little or no regard for how they impact others.