Saudi Arabia, Iran agree to restore diplomatic ties | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Saudi Arabia, Iran agree to restore diplomatic ties

Mar 12, 2023 11:08 AM IST

The two countries further agreed to revive the Security Cooperation Agreement signed in 2001 and another 1998 pact for cooperation in trade, investment, technology and culture

The revival of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran under an agreement brokered by the Chinese could have significant ramifications for geopolitics in West Asia, which India sees as part of its extended neighbourhood, experts said on Saturday.

The deal was unveiled through a trilateral announcement on Friday by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Twitter Photo)
The deal was unveiled through a trilateral announcement on Friday by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Twitter Photo)

The deal, unveiled through a trilateral announcement on Friday by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, took diplomatic circles in New Delhi by surprise as the talks had been kept tightly under wraps. Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan said on Saturday the arrangement was the outcome of talks that lasted two years.

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According to the trilateral statement, Saudi Arabia and Iran will resume diplomatic relations that were snapped in 2016 and reopen their embassies and missions within two months. The two countries further agreed to revive the Security Cooperation Agreement signed in 2001 and another 1998 pact for cooperation in trade, investment, technology and culture.

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Though West Asia watchers advocated a wait-and-watch approach to see how things would pan out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two arch-rivals in the region that are also divided on theological grounds, China’s role in facilitating the agreement was a surprise for many since it had never played such a role in the region’s diplomacy.

Talmiz Ahmad, who served as India’s envoy to Saudia Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was among those taken by surprise by the developments.

“It came as a complete surprise as everything was kept under wraps. We had heard nothing about it. Past talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran had involved senior intelligence officials but these talks were at a higher level,” he said.

The agreement was hammered out during five days of talks in Beijing, beginning March 6, between Saudi National Security Advisor Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and Iran’s secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Both officials have been key interlocutors in security engagements with India.

Saudi and Iranian intelligence officials had earlier held talks in Iraq and Oman during 2021-2022. While those talks had been publicly acknowledged, there was no official word on the contacts facilitated by China, which gained pace after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia last December and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s trip to Beijing in February.

There has been no official word as yet from the Indian government in response to the development.

Waiel Awwad, a New Delhi-based writer and political analyst, said there is a growing feeling in Arab capitals about the need to engage with China, a rising power closer to home, after decades of close ties between many West Asian countries and the US.

“China can no longer be ignored, especially at a time when the focus of the US has shifted to Europe after the Ukraine crisis,” Awwad said, pointing to the manner in which China has firmed up relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent years.

“Also, China wants to ensure the flow of energy from West Asia, which accounts for about 40% of its oil imports, at a time of volatility on the global markets,” he added.

China’s emergence as a new power broker in West Asia, especially as part of Chinese efforts to engineer a new world order at a time of heightened tensions with the US, will be viewed warily by India, which has often referred to the region as part of the country’s extended neighbourhood in view of energy supplies and the presence of an Indian diaspora of nearly nine million spread across Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several other countries.

Beijing’s diplomatic push in West Asia also comes at a time when its relations with New Delhi are at an all-time low because of the dragging military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Ahmad, who has repeatedly advocated a role for India in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, “This has always been part of our space, especially after India strengthened ties with several countries over the past decade or so. There is a worry that India could now recede into the background,” he said.

“The Indian expatriates in West Asia account for annual remittances of about $35 billion to $40 billion, whereas there would be hardly 500,000 Chinese nationals in the region. Our contacts with the region go back thousands of years and there are deep cultural ties,” Ahmad said, explaining why India had been better placed to mediate between the West Asian rivals.

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The development in Saudi Arabia-Iran ties also comes at a time of reported differences between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, especially over the war in Yemen. The Saudi leader, popularly known as MBS, stayed away from a summit of West Asian leaders hosted by the UAE in January. Last December, the UAE leadership didn’t join a China-Arab summit in Saudi Arabia.

Some experts believe the Saudi Arabian move to mend fences with Iran was made with an eye on the situation in Yemen, where Houthi rebels backed by Tehran have been blamed for missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. A rapprochement with Iran could help reduce tensions in Yemen and even facilitate Saudi Arabia’s exit from the coalition engaged in the grinding war with the Houthis.

The UAE was among the countries that embraced the Abraham Accords with Israel and became involved in new groupings such as India-Israel-UAE-US (I2U2), while Saudi Arabia has held out on normalising relations with Israel.

Experts said it would be necessary to watch developments over a longer period of time to see whether the agreement facilitated by China leads to the overall improvement of relations between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran, which have long sought to exert supremacy over the region.

“We have to wait and watch to see whether this is just a temporary truce or there is something more to it,” said Awwad.

Ahmad said a lot would depend on the responses from the US, which appears to be strategically adrift in West Asia despite a significant military presence in the region and Israel.

Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have not abandoned the Palestinian cause despite changes brought in by the Abraham Accords and all these factors will have a bearing on future alignments in West Asia, he said.

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