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Riyadh-Teheran detente brings opportunities

By JAN YUMUL in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-28 09:45

Landmark deal offers chance for Gulf countries to work together, analysts say

Saudi Arabia and Iran's landmark detente on March 10, which was facilitated by Beijing, offers an opportunity for Iran and other Gulf countries to renew ties and work together on transnational issues from security to climate change, say Middle East experts.

Mohammad Alzghoul, head of the Iranian Research Unit at the Emirates Policy Center, or EPC, a UAE-based think tank, said that large Middle East powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran repairing ties is a "positive development" that hints at long-term reconciliation.

It creates a favorable environment for resolving issues and promoting mutual growth, he said, as well as raising the possibility of improved relations between Iran and the countries of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.

A communique issued at the end of the 155th session of the GCC Ministerial Council on March 22 in Riyadh hailed the China-brokered agreement.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani on Thursday welcomed the GCC support for the detente in a statement.

Mohammad Jamshidi, deputy chief of staff for political affairs to the Iranian president, tweeted on March 19 that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has been invited to visit Riyadh. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have agreed to meet soon.

Also, contacts between Saudi Arabia and Syria have gathered momentum following the agreement.

Iran had benefited from trade relations with some Gulf Arab states, but these relations were stalled since 2016, said Aisha Al-Sarihi, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

A successful agreement will not only open avenues for exchange and investment between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also the wider GCC region, she said.

Ali Khansari, an international affairs analyst and graduate of regional studies at Allameh Tabataba'i University in Teheran, said that Saudi Arabia has always had a "significant influence" on its GCC peers. While they may not always agree with Riyadh, he said, they would "usually coordinate with Saudi Arabia" on their foreign policy toward Iran.

Alzghoul from the EPC noted that the UAE has taken steps toward reconciliation with traditional rivals while also withdrawing from the ongoing Yemen conflict.

"The UAE leadership recognizes that geopolitical conflicts are zero-sum games, whereas geo-economic competition can result in many 'winners', making it a healthier alternative for the region," said Alzghoul.

Mohammad Salami, an associate researcher at the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis, or IIGSA, said the detente will definitely strengthen relations between Iran and its Gulf neighbors.

Challenges remain

However, despite obvious progress, challenges remain for Iran and GCC countries, citing cases of Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, and "it is unlikely" that these issues will be resolved easily, said Salami.

Henelito Sevilla Jr, a West Asia expert and dean of the Asian Center at the University of the Philippines, said that Saudi Arabia's rapprochement with Iran signals an opportunity for other GCC members to consider collaborating with Iran.

Sevilla from the Philippines said: "The pre-rapprochement initiative… suggests that in the presence of a highly politicized region and conflicting national interests between parties, confidence building, diplomacy and negotiation are still the best alternatives to confrontation and war."

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