Will the Improved Iran-Saudi Ties Stabilize the Middle East and End The Yemen War?

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said his country is willing to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia aimed at creating stability in the Middle East and ending the bloodshed in Yemen.

“From Iran’s points of view, there is no problem in developing ties with neighbors and resuming relations with Saudi Arabia,” Rouhani made the statement in a meeting with Omani Foreign Minister Yousef Bin Alawi in Tehran as Xinhua quoted.

Rouhani also emphasised the Yemen War, where Saudi and Iran were involved. He added there should be an effort to end the conflict sooner. In 2015, Saudi launched a military intervention in Yemen to crush Iran-backed Houthi rebels who expelled internationally-recognized leader Abd Mansour Hadi, who fled to Saudi.

The background of the Iran-Saudi rivalry

Saudi and Iran are leading powers of the two largest sects of Islam; the former is seen as the world’s leading Sunni Muslim nation, while the Iatter is predominantly Shia Muslim.

The 1979 Iran revolution came as a challenge to Saudi, which boasted as the birthplace of Islam, given Iran’s theocracy system and its aim to export such a system elsewhere.

Iran was close to the West during the Shah rule. However, the revolution turned Iran into one of the US adversaries, while Saudi is one of the US closest allies.

Saudi and Iran have never been engaged in a direct fight. However, both are competing to exert their influence in the Middle East. They are also among the world’s largest energy producers due to their oil and natural gas’ abundant reserve.

Yemen is a battleground for Saudi and Iran. Riyadh backs Mansour Hadi while Tehran supports Houthi rebels to overthrow him.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report revealed that, as of November 2018, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had killed 6,872 civilians in 2018 and wounded 10,768.

Tensions continued when Saudi and the US accused Iran of masterminding the drone attacks targeting Saudi’s oil facility on September 14. Riyadh claimed Tehran’s role in the incident based on the drones’ and missiles’ debris. However, it was uncertain whether those weapons appeared to be launched from Iran.

Iran-Saudi improved ties for the peaceful Middle East and Yemen

Rouhani urged Saudi to end its military operation in Yemen, adding that by withdrawing troops from Yemen, Saudi’s security would be guaranteed.

“The security of Saudi Arabia will be guaranteed with the termination of aggression in Yemen, rather than by inviting foreigners,” Rouhani told the UN General Assembly.

Just a few weeks after the drone attack, Iran and Saudi were reportedly in touch despite Riyadh’s denial, as Voanews reported.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani welcomed a dialogue with Saudi as it could ease the tension in the world’s most volatile region.

“Tehran welcomes any negotiations with Saudi Arabia … because talks with Riyadh can resolve many regional problems and issues,” Larijani told Aljazeera as Voanews reported.

Saudi’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel Jubeir, denied Tehran’s claim via Twitter, stating: “it is not correct that Saudi Arabia sent a message to Tehran, but that the leader of a friendly country sought to calm the situation and Riyadh told him that its position has always been to seek security and stability in the region.”

Saudi has held talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels via video conference mediated by Oman over the past two months, Gamal Amer, a negotiator representing the Houthis, confirmed as AlJazeera reported.

A senior Saudi official admitted that Riyadh had opened a dialogue with the Houthis since 2016 and would continue it to create peace in Yemen, as AFP reported.

“We have had an open channel with the Houthis since 2016. We are continuing these communications to support peace in Yemen,” the official told reporters.

The official did not elaborate on the development of the talks. The Houthi rebels did not also comment on the dialogue. However, rebels also held a meeting with Washington as Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker confirmed during his Saudi visit in September.

Anti-Iran alliance is crumbling

Saudi and its allies have started a dialogue with Iran (as the United Arab Emirates held maritime talks with Tehran), showing that the anti-Iran alliance is waning and dialogue with Tehran is necessary to create the peaceful Middle East.

The anti-Iran alliance is not just faltering; it’s crumbling. MBZ (Mohammed bin Zayed, Emirati’s crown prince) has struck his deal with Iran; MBS (Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s crown prince is not far behind,” Martin Indyk, a distinguished fellow at Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior diplomat, tweeted as The New York Times quoted.

Despite the ongoing tension involving Iran and the US following the latter’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal, the reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh is vital for the peaceful Middle East and an end to a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.