SAUDI-IRAN RAPPROCHEMENT: RUMOURS AROUND THE GULF

SAUDI-IRAN RAPPROCHEMENT: RUMOURS AROUND THE GULF

Against the backdrop of continuing efforts to achieve a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, on 2 May it was announced that King Salman of Saudi Arabia has invited the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, to make an official visit to the Kingdom.  It should be noted that the invitation was issued after Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, had visited both Qatar and Oman, just days after Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had also visited Doha and Muscat.  

In recent years, both Qatar and Oman have enjoyed better relations with Iran than other GCC member states.  And both have either acted as intermediaries across the waters of the Gulf or have been utilised for back-channel diplomatic engagement.

The decision to invite Sultan Haitham to Riyadh seems to reinforce the likelihood that Saudi Arabia’s leadership is seeking to negotiate a broader, perhaps pan-Gulf, settlement with Iran.  Not only would this be in line with international efforts to work with the US and Iran to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, but it would also indicate Riyadh’s growing enthusiasm to build a new consensus with US President Biden’s administration.

Despite all this conjecture, it is important to note that there has been no formal confirmation of the rumoured talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  However, the omens on both sides continue to sound positive with the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman recently commenting: “With negotiations and a constructive outlook, the two important countries in the region and the Islamic world can put their differences behind them and enter a new phase of cooperation and tolerance to bring stability and peace to the region.”

For the moment, the EU seems to be content to see how developments unfold.  On 18th April, High Representative Josep Borrell told a press conference that the EU remained strongly supportive of efforts on all sides to resurrect the Iran nuclear accord.  He said: “I think that both parties are really interested in reaching an agreement, and they have been moving from general to more focused issues, which are clearly, on one side sanction-lifting, and on the other side, nuclear implementation issues."

But while there is residual pessimism that the JCPOA can be recovered in its entirety, the choreography of visits and cautious public remarks emerging for various Gulf capitals suggests that a rapprochement between the whole of the GCC and Iran has become a firm possibility.  It is suggested that such an outcome would help considerably to reduce the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran emerging, with or without the JCPOA, and significantly improve regional stability, not least in a lasting resolution of the Yemen conflict.