In what seems like a remarkable turnaround in regional politics, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic ties. In the first formal meeting of the countries’ senior officials in seven years, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian, shook hands in Beijing. The two countries have agreed to reopen their diplomatic missions, encourage official and private delegations, and facilitate visa processes for their citizens. The statement also says that technical teams will coordinate to examine ways of expanding cooperation, including resuming flights between the two countries.
China brokered the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is seen as demonstrating the increasing influence of Beijing in the region, compared to the diminishing role of the United States. The restoration of ties comes amid significant shifts in the power dynamics of the region, and the rapprochement could mean improved security for Saudi Arabia, which has blamed Iran for arming the Houthi rebels. The move is also seen as a significant step towards restoring ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been shunned by many Western and Arab states since his security forces used violence on protesters, unleashing a war in 2011.
Abas Aslani, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, believes that the countries are “mostly focused on rivalry and tensions,” and that “on the bilateral level, to what extent they can go ahead depends on how Saudis act because Iran has been under economic sanctions by the West.” The two countries had severed diplomatic ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in response to the kingdom’s execution of Shia Muslim leader Nimr al-Nimr.