Analysis, Middle East

ANALYSIS - What's behind bin Salman’s rapprochement with Iran

The immediate security needs of Saudi Arabia sabotage the long-term interests of the country as the chaotic foreign policy-making processes persist

Dr. Necmettin Acar   | 17.05.2021
ANALYSIS - What's behind bin Salman’s rapprochement with Iran

The author is the head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences of Mardin Artuklu University


Middle Eastern states have started to give signals of radical change in the direction of their foreign policies, which have become a tradition after being followed for many years. The Gulf-Israeli rapprochement, the tendencies of Turkey and Egypt to thaw ties, the mutual desire between Turkey and Israel to strengthen their diplomatic relations, and the efforts of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt to form an alternative Arab bloc can be regarded as the most important examples of the regional countries’ attempts to reformulate their foreign policies.

These warm signals sent to Iran also have to do with Iranian domestic policy. The hawks rising to power in Iranian politics in place of the current moderate cadres in the upcoming Iranian elections would serve to amplify the mutual military threats and deepen the security dilemma of the Saudis. Therefore, Riyadh wants to reduce the tensions and weaken the hand of the hawk wing in Iranian domestic politics by sending warm messages to Tehran.

While these important changes were taking place in the foreign politics of the competing countries in the region, the most important development was undoubtedly the signs of softening between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the "existential enemies" of the region. There had been some leakage from the ongoing secret talks in Baghdad for some time now. However, the statements by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week that Iran was a neighboring country, Saudi Arabia aspired to establish a good and distinguished relationship with Iran and wanted "a prosperous Iran and to have mutual interests with each other” can be considered an important sign that very significant changes may occur in the region soon. The countries in the region, and especially Saudi Arabia, repositioning their foreign policies is closely related to the important regional and global developments that have recently emerged.

Dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy during the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring process, which began after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the events in 2010, resulted in the weakening of important states in the region such as Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, as well as their removal from the regional power equation. This radical change in the regional power balance led to two major developments: the strengthening of the hands of non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran in the Middle Eastern and Arab politics and the creation of power gaps in the Levant, the Red Sea, South Arabia, and the Gulf region, with the weakening of the three most powerful states in the Arab world.

Throughout this process, the status-quoist Arab bloc, which Saudi Arabia attempted to create by siding with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), turned to ambitious and adventurous policies in order to both expand its regional influence (to prevent the filling of the aforementioned power gaps by the rivaling powers) and to limit the influence of non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran on Middle Eastern and Arab politics. The military intervention in Bahrain; the planning and supporting of the coup against Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013; the military intervention in Yemen; the forcing of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign by holding him hostage, as well as the attempts to (re)design Lebanese domestic politics; the support given to the putschist General Khalifa Haftar in Libya; the Qatar blockade; the efforts to establish a pro-Saudi opposition bloc in Syria; and, most recently, the coup attempt in Jordan last month were the consequences of this. However, despite all of the diplomatic, military and economic efforts made by the Saudis, these ambitious and adventurous policies did not contribute to the national interests of their country, and they were not successful in balancing Iran, or Turkey, in any of the aforementioned regions. Hindsight from the past decade has shown that even though Saudi Arabia is an economic giant; militarily, it’s a dwarf, and that the Saudis have no chance of succeeding in a regional crisis where the solution depends on a strong military capacity.

The warm signals sent to Iran in Saudi foreign policy recently show that this failure in question is now acknowledged by the highest levels in the government as well. In fact, the young and inexperienced cadres who ruled the country and whose ambitions exceeded their experience level turning towards ambitious and adventurous policies that far exceed the country’s military and industrial capacity have weakened and exhausted Saudi Arabia in every aspect. While the military intervention in Yemen ran through the economic and military resources of the country, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi greatly damaged the image of the country in the Islamic world, as well as in the West. Saudi Arabia turning its back on the Palestinian cause with its support for the “Deal of the Century” and pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Israel resulted in the state losing its discursive superiority over the Islamic world which it had established thanks to its pioneering role in the Palestinian issue in the past years.

Factors that are forcing Mohammed bin Salman to get closer to Iran

The young cadres ruling Saudi Arabia today are planning for major transformations in the country. Freeing the country from its dependence on oil money and building a strong economic capacity are central to these plans. It seems unlikely that the Saudi administration, which is struggling with instabilities and civil wars all around as well as constantly making defense spending in order to balance a large regional power like Iran, will be able to actualize the expected economic transformation in this environment. For this reason, Riyadh desperately needs regional peace, at the least in order to fulfill its economic priorities.

The softening process initiated with Iran aims to relieve the high tensions on the military field and attract more investment to the country, as well as direct the country’s resources to areas more productive than defense. At this point, the Yemen case is of critical importance. The Saudis want to get out of this meaningless adventure that is using up the country’s resources, as soon as possible. Given the current security climate, it is not possible for the expected hoped-for investments to enter the country, whose economic recovery is largely dependent on foreign investment and financing. In short, for as long as the war in Yemen continues, economic recovery in the country does not seem plausible.

This softening process is closely related to Saudi domestic policy as well. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the de-facto ruler of the country, on one hand has to make efforts to neutralize his rivals in the House of Saud, and on the other has to deal with the opposition of the Salafi Ulama, the biggest partner of the establishment, regarding their projects on “modernizing” the country. It is a known fact that this opposition has a significant influence on Saudi society and the political system. Tensions with Iran decreasing would serve to reduce the perceptions of threat among the Saudi public and weaken the hand of the hawkish wing led by the Ulema.

These warm signals sent to Iran also have to do with Iranian domestic policy. The hawks rising to power in Iranian politics in place of the current moderate cadres in the upcoming Iranian elections would serve to amplify the mutual military threats and deepen the security dilemma of the Saudis. Therefore, Riyadh wants to reduce the tensions and weaken the hand of the hawkish wing in Iranian domestic politics by sending warm messages to Tehran.

In addition to the aforementioned changes in the regional political climate, the recent changes in the global political climate also force Riyadh to redirect its foreign policy. The most significant development at the global scale is the major changes in the Middle Eastern policy of the US with Joe Biden taking office. The Biden administration releasing the Khashoggi report, suspending the military support given to the Saudis in the Yemen war, starting to withdraw from Afghanistan completely, and, most importantly, being willing to return to a nuclear deal with Iran are causing concerns for the Saudis. The Riyadh administration, who (before Biden) had relied on the military, economic, and diplomatic capacities of Israel against Iran, had to revise its policies with Biden having a colder attitude towards Israel compared to Trump.

We could say that the “Obama Syndrome”, which was used to express the foreign policy of the US towards the Middle East during Obama’s term, reappeared in Riyadh with Biden taking office. While determining the US foreign policy towards the region, Obama had an approach that did not take into account the security sensitivities of Riyadh much. Obama withdrawing US troops from Iraq despite all of the objections from Riyadh and avoiding a military intervention against the Assad regime, as well as the nuclear agreement he signed with Iran and his policy of reluctant support for the war in Yemen were a result of this approach. At that time, Obama’s disregard for the security sensitivities of the Saudis caused concerns in Riyadh that the US would leave the region exposed to Iranian influence. When we consider Biden’s policy towards the region, we could say that he is following a policy similar to that of Obama’s. This is because, with the initiatives he took in foreign policy in his first hundred days, Biden demonstrated that he did not care about the Saudis’ security sensitivities in regards to Yemen or Iran.

When we observe Saudi foreign policy over the past five years, we spot extremely dissimilar drifts that are incompatible with each other. In 2015, when Mohammed bin Salman took office as the Saudi Minister of Defense at the age of 29, Saudi foreign and security policy focused on establishing a Sunni-Arab consensus to balance Iran. The most important goal of Saudi foreign policy in this period was creating strong military coalitions and balancing Iran by joining the military capacities of Sunni and Arab countries under names such as the “Peninsula Shield Force”, “Army of Islam” and an “Arab NATO”. However, fast-forward to the 2020s, the Saudis have abandoned their policy of balancing Iran by leaning on the military capacity of Sunni and Arab countries, and yet again turned to a completely opposite policy to balance Iran; rapprochement with Israel. It is 2021 and the Riyadh administration is now saying that “...Iran is a neighboring country, we all aspire to establish a good and distinguished relationship with Iran” and “We want a prosperous Iran and to have mutual interests with each other.”

We can certainly say that Riyadh’s security concerns are getting deeper by the day. In addition, the immediate security concerns of the country are topping the agenda, instead of the long-term interests of the country. The urgency of the country’s immediate security needs also makes it difficult to focus on long-term interests. Recently, due to the changes taking place in internal balances as well, we could say that the foreign policy-making processes in Riyadh are in chaos. Otherwise, it would not be possible to explain such deep-rooted foreign policy orientations that have been in such conflict with each other over the last five years.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay

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