King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia greets Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam in Riyadh on Tuesday. Salam and Saudi royals discussed the impact of Syria’s civil war on Lebanon. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: News that Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in what some labelled a “fresh rapprochement” raised the optimism bar. Of course, while the resumption of relatively harmonious relations between the two countries was bound to affect several regional concerns, there was little to indicate that the reminder by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal — that his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif was welcome to visit Riyadh — would drastically alter existing differences.

To be sure, Saudi-Iranian ties were critical to stabilisation initiatives in the rest of the Arab World, especially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, ostensibly because Riyadh and Tehran were the principal external supporters of the key protagonists in so many arenas. That was and remained the case today, which meant that Saudi Arabia was able and willing to invest the energy to alter the equation, naturally to serve its own long-term interests.

Towards that end, the decision to return the Saudi Ambassador to Beirut, for example, was an illustration that Riyadh wished to prevent further destabilisation in Lebanon, even if the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war continued to determine the direction that events in that country were most likely to follow. In other words, what Saudi leaders wanted was to further isolate Lebanon from the more or less permanent destabilisation under way in Syria and, perhaps, work in earnest to reduce Sunni-Shiiite tensions across the region without providing a victory to Iran in either country. Another example was the lowering of tensions in Syria itself, allegedly with a reluctant acceptance that the Bashar Al Assad regime was most likely to stay in power, while opposition forces licked their wounds.

To some extent, these tangential evolutions in Saudi policies led observers to conclude that Riyadh was unhappy with Washington, on account of confusing American initiatives — led by President Barack Obama’s failure to take strong military action against Syria after Damascus used chemical weapons to kill hundreds at Al Ghouta in August 2013 — that, inter alia, prompted Saudi Arabia to forego a coveted two-years term at the UN Security Council, as well as introduce critical personnel changes. Many salivated the news that Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the powerful National Security Council advisor and head of the Saudi Istikhbarat and, apparently, the man most disliked by the Obama administration, was relieved of his intelligence post.

Policy transformations

Yet, it would probably be an error to misread routine changes as any signs of policy transformations, because Saudi Arabia and Iran were, in many ways, “the drivers of the new Middle East cold war.” In the words of F. Gregory Gause, an astute academic who concentrates his work on the Gulf region, Saudi-Iranian relations were conflictual because the two governments “represented two opposite poles of Islamist politics — a revolutionary republic versus a conservative monarchy, each claiming that it speaks most legitimately for ‘Islam’ in the political sphere.” In fact, as Toby Maathiesen also discussed in his Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t, the Sunni-Shiite divide grew sharper given mutual antagonisms that drew succour from centuries-old religious dogmas. When one added natural geopolitical rivalries in a super-sensitive region that affected the economic welfare of the entire planet, it was absolutely clear that bilateral ties would be tense.

Notwithstanding historical legacies, the recent Obama stop in Riyadh for a meeting with King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz probably sharpened the Saudi view that Washington was determined to cut a deal with Tehran that, in turn, prompted the Saudi monarch and other senior members of the ruling family to reassess their positions.

It was within such a context that the putative Saudi-Iranian conversation must be assessed, cognizant that the United States remained deeply committed to the defence of the Arab Gulf States, best illustrated by the presence of the Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel at the first ever meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council “joint defence council” in Jeddah. Given Tehran’s oft-declared allergies to a long-term American military presence in the region, Hagel’s assurances — that Washington would not sell them out, guard the area and keep sea-lanes open for the indefinite future — affirmed what really mattered. Even the departure of Prince Bandar’s half-brother, Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman Bin Sultan, a day after Hagel left the Kingdom, did not alter the country’s permanent relationships with the US.

Under the circumstances, Saudi Arabia may well have softened its tough approach to Iran, though it was important to note that it accompanied this with an unprecedented military parade that came at the end of planned manoeuvres that involved 130,000 men, which also displayed Chinese-supplied missiles capable of hitting Tehran. It was crystal clear that Riyadh was more than happy to negotiate with Tehran on a slew of items, but always from a position of strength. Ultimately, the Saudi decision to elevate the conversation with Iran was meant to send clear messages across the board: to the West in general and the United States in particular that Riyadh remained the principal Arab driver; to Tehran that the latter’s continued adventurism throughout the Arab world was bound to elicit strong responses; and to the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies that it, Saudi Arabia, was the principal regional power and intended to preserve its position.