Since the coronavirus crisis began to grip the world, Saudi Arabia and countries close to it have adopted the policy of silence. This is while many states are capitalizing on the pandemic as a golden opportunity to revive their relations with other countries. Still, Riyadh has remained tight-lipped and Saudi authorities are not, as they used to, launching those piercing verbal attacks and back-to-back wars of words against Iran and setting conditions for the Islamic Republic, any more. Once, they would set pre-conditions for Tehran and try to put Iran under political and international pressure. However, for the first time in five years, they have renounced their rivalry over the past two months. On the other hand, the Saudis’ old allies, i.e., United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials, have made an about-face toward Iran, raising speculation about new demarcations in the region. Now, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are the only countries to have retained their hostile approach vis-à-vis Iran.
Sabah Zangeneh, a former Iranian ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and an expert on Middle East issues, has, in an interview with Khabar Online, weighed in on Riyadh’s fresh approach.
It’s been quite some time that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have sealed their lips in dealing with Iran and, unlike in the past, are reluctant to wage wars of words against our country. What do you think the reason behind this silence is?
Apparently, Saudi authorities are mostly busy controlling the coronavirus pandemic along their borders and have, like other countries, mobilized their resources to tackle the disease. However, it’s not the whole thing. The political, economic and military pressure on Saudi Arabia has created numerous problems for the country. Unlike the UAE, which has come to realize that its interests make it all the more necessary for Abu Dhabi to adopt a new approach and distance itself from its previous policy, Saudi Arabia has not come to that understanding, yet. Still, Riyadh has preferred to remain tight-lipped on the UAE’s change of heart. Given the current circumstances, I think the ruling elite in Riyadh are unlikely to be thinking about a logical and rational strategy with regards to the region and their relationship with other countries.
Saudi Arabia is suffering back-to-back defeats in Yemen. These defeats have made it difficult for the kingdom to maintain its balance of thought and mind and even to take action.
So, we can say Saudi Arabia has somehow prioritized its problems to be solved, and, at the moment, it is not a priority for Riyadh to bear animosity toward Iran and turn to issues related to our country. What are the problems which the Saudis are busy with, and which have led them to somehow act passively in the region?
Any move made by Saudi Arabia recently has further harmed the country. In Yemen, the Saudis tried to give more facilities to those in the south, but it further divided different parts of the country and dragged Saudi Arabia into a new predicament. The UAE distanced itself from Yemen developments, which meant it left Saudi Arabia high and dry in Yemen, causing Riyadh to lose the ability to control the chess game in Yemen. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to oil-rich areas in Yemen, but the same areas fell to Ansarullah forces, bringing yet another defeat for Riyadh. Then the Riyadh agreement failed to get off the ground and the ceasefire that the Saudis had planned broke down. All these led the Saudis to get a feeling of failure and run into problems, which are evident in the decisions made by Riyadh officials.
Can the developments in Yemen coupled with the Saudis’ silence and the UAE’s U-turn be a start point for new demarcations in the region?
In the first place, Saud Arabia should decide to end its atrocities in Yemen and stop purchasing weapons to destroy the country. However, there is long distance between word and deed, and, in practice, the Saudis show little proclivity to change the status quo. Whenever bin Salman can resolve the problems he has created in Yemen, then we may expect new events and changes in the region. But the settlement of the Yemen crisis is a precursor to any change.
Events which are unfolding for Saudi Arabia and which have brought crises upon the country amount to a wake-up call for Riyadh. If the kingdom can notice that warning signal, then it will introduce sea changes to its foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has suffered failure in selling oil, and something which they had taken pride in, for years, virtually does not exist anymore. With such low crude prices, Saudi Arabia cannot meet its needs. Even to meet its everyday demands, Riyadh needs support aid from the International Monetary Fund and similar institutions as well international stock markets. Such a situation would be disastrous for the Saudis.
Under the current circumstances in the region, and given the silence that Saudi Arabia has currently opted for, what should be expected to happen in the Middle East?
If rationality exists in Riyadh and if authorities other than bin Salman make a move and show him the path to rationality, the bipolar situation in the Middle East may go away. The reason is that Saudi Arabia practically is not able to tackle enmities anymore, and it needs better ties with other regional countries in order to get through the crises it is facing. But, in practice, Saudi Arabia is more isolated than ever, and it is only Bahrain that supports Riyadh and accepts policies dictated by the Saudis. On the other hand, the United States does not back Saudi Arabia any more, and is only ostensibly an ally of Saudi Arabia.
But unfortunately, rationality is virtually nonexistent in Riyadh, and those who could have helped the system have already been removed. That is why we cannot expect extraordinary changes, at least in the short run.
When Tehran and Riyadh severed their relations, the Saudis managed to form a consensus among Arab countries against Iran. But this leverage began to weaken day by day, and the countries which once stood by Saudi Arabia retreated. With the UAE turning from Saudi Arabia toward Iran, can we expect other such changes of hear?
For now, it is only Bahrain that is a yes-man for Riyadh. Other allies which are both heavyweights and submissive to Saudi policies are virtually nonexistent. Egypt, Kuwait, etc., which were once considered a Saudi ally, are not critics of Riyadh. Qatar and the UAE are now explicitly opposing Riyadh, and such turning away from Saudi Arabia is expected to increase, too. Saudi Arabia itself has shown some change of heart, too. It seeks to restore ties with Syria and has misgivings over Brotherhood currents gaining strength. That is why it has turned against Turkey. It seems that the Saudis are trying to rectify their relations with Syria, which can serve as a preamble to changes. But this will not happen quickly. Riyadh feels it is in danger when it comes to Syria, and it seems the case has been left to Khalid bin Salman to handle. If this is true, we may expect changes in Saudi relations with Syria and even with Lebanon. But in other cases, Riyadh has shown no single policy.