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Outcomes of Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement on regional files ‘too soon to be judged’: analysts

Qatar is among the countries that welcomed the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Last week saw a major regional development with the resumption of ties between former rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in a historic breakthrough agreement brokered by China.

The development was widely welcomed in the Middle East and the West, spurring hopes of stability while raising questions over a new regional order.

At the centre of the question are countries that have been a ground for the Riyadh and Tehran rivalry to play out, namely Lebanon and Yemen.

More developments were reported this week with an invitation by Saudi Arabia to Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to visit the Kingdom.

Speaking to Doha News, analysts pointed to several factors that led to the rapprochement following a rivalry between the regional powers since 2016.

“[Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman needs regional stability so that he can focus on domestic economic issues as Vision 2030 reaches its halfway stage,” Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Doha News.

Riyadh had severed ties with Tehran in 2016 after the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran, following the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr.

Tensions soared between both countries over the past years, though progress was reported in 2021 after talks took place between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq. 

Baghdad hosted five rounds of talks before China stepped in late last year and over the past months, leading to Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting the leaders of Riyadh and Tehran.

“China in this trilateral engagement looks like it might have provided a fresh impetus, fresh angle to come together and reduce some tensions,” Dr. David Roberts, Dr. David Roberts, Associate Professor at King’s College London, told Doha News.

Qatar is among the countries that welcomed the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties with Qatar while subjecting it to an illegal air, land and sea blockade.

Some of the 13 demands presented by the quartet at the time included winding down ties with Tehran and closing its diplomatic missions in Doha.

These demands were rejected by Qatar.

While regional engagement with Iran increased since the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration in 2021, which saw the end of the diplomatic crisis with Qatar, analysts believe the regional reconciliation was not a factor in the development between Riyadh and Tehran.

Cautious optimism in Yemen

Last week, Iran’s mission to the United Nations noted that the agreement will contribute to a political settlement in Yemen, which has been a battle ground for proxies Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which the latter is widely seen as a backer of the Houthi rebels.

Already living under a complex sectarian divide and aftermath of the Arab Spring, the crisis in Yemen worsened in 2015 with the beginning of the war between the Saudi coalition, which involved the United Arab Emirates and the Houthi rebels following their capture of capital Sanaa.

Conflict coupled with the Saudi blockade has rendered Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

While the major regional development has raised hopeful questions over a possible solution to regional files, including Yemen, analysts remain wary of any such outcome.

“We cannot yet judge how the agreement will reflect on the war in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia and Iran may want this war to stop being an issue of contention between them, Iran may not be fully be able to convince the Houthis to agree to a peace deal,” Dr. Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center Washington, DC, told Doha News.

Echoing similar sentiments, Dr. Roberts, author of Security Politics in the Gulf Monarchies,  noted that one must see “the devil in the detail.”

“Stepping back, one presumes that this is a good move because China is more likely to be in a position to work with Iran to perhaps slightly pressure Iran to make concessions in that kind of sphere,” he said.

For Dr. Dania Thafer, Executive Director of Gulf International Forum, the rapprochement paves the way for de-escalation. 

“It has been said by Saudi officials that coming to an agreement about Yemen is a priority issue for de-escalation with Iran,” Dr. Thafer told Doha News.

Last year, Yemen witnessed the first truce since 2016 that came into effect on 2 April for two months before it was renewed several times until October. 

The ceasefire resulted in the calmest period Yemen has witnessed in years since the start of the brutal war.

The United Nations previously said that the ceasefire led to a 60% decrease in civilian casualties and almost 50% drop in displacements across the war-torn country.

The expiration of the truce raised calls for dialogue between all sides in Yemen as the country’s humanitarian situation worsened.

“Whether the deal signed by Saudi Arabia and Iran contributes to ending the fighting in Yemen will be determined by the degree of leverage the Iranians can wield over the Houthis to push them toward the negotiating table,” Dr. Ulrichsen said.


Lebanon is another area in the region where the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is seen. 

Riyadh has been viewed as the backer of some Sunni and Maronite groups as Tehran supports the powerful Shia Hizbullah movement.

Hizbollah had also welcomed the re-establishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, describing it as a “good development” that will “open up horizons in the entire region”.

“We have complete confidence that this will not come at our expense,” Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address earlier this month.

In 2017, foreign interference in the country became as apparent as ever when then-Prime Minister, Saad Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia and reportedly forced to resign.

Hizbollah’s grip over Lebanon was also cited by Saudi Arabia during a diplomatic row between the Gulf and Beirut in 2021.

Commenting on a possible outcome in Lebanon, after the resumption of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Dr. Ulrichsen noted the deal would less likely affect Beirut.

“Saudi Arabia has disengaged from Lebanon in recent months and so the deal and any rapprochement with Iran may be less likely to affect the political standoff in Lebanon,” Dr. Ulrichsen said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Harb said that Lebanese politicians have had their hopes over the deal’s impact in electing a new president.

“Lebanese politicians hope that the deal will reflect on Lebanon by facilitating the election of a new president. At the same time, Hizbollah may not necessarily be interested in facilitating this because it wants to maintain a dominant position in the country,” Dr. Harb said.