In what has been termed a Chinese diplomatic coup, the Saudi-Iran resumption of diplomatic ties, mediated by China, is arguably the biggest development for the region in the last decade. The first response, and rightly so, was that of skepticism that with the complexity of shared problems across the region, in practice it would be a hard shell to crack.
Since the Iranian revolution, the tremors of this Shia-Sunni state-level rivalry were perpetually felt in the Middle East and beyond. The antagonism had a direct bearing on the internal social cohesion and security situation of countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and even to a certain extent in Pakistan as well. The question has been how would the two countries reconcile their differences that have been marred with blood on both sides. And even if they did, it is going to take a long time before the practical contours are agreed upon.
However, contrary to the calculated speculations, the first major breakthrough of this rapprochement was the end of the war in Yemen. Regardless of what side one supported during the active conflict, it was unanimously agreed that the war has brought on one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent times. Apart from conflict entrepreneurs, everyone must be happy with this development.
Saudi-Syria detente: Major breakthrough in Yemen conflict
Though the deal itself would have sufficed to have a substantial improvement in the security situation in the Middle East, another major development took place when the Syrian Foreign Minister touched down in Jeddah on April 12th. This is the first visit of a Syrian official to Saudi Arabia in over a decade.
When Arab Spring reached Syria and President Bashar Al Assad decided to use brute force to crush the peaceful protests, which later turned violent, it presented Riyadh with a unique opportunity to cut ties with Damascus, a close ally of Tehran. In fact, Saudi Arabia went a step further and actively supported rebel groups with logistics and funds to take down the Assad regime.
There was a time when Saudi Arabia was paying off for the mortars, RPGs, and bullets for the fall of Damascus. For instance, a Syrian rebel group Jaysh-al-Islam, which was believed to be heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, had managed to reach the outskirts of Damascus at one point during the civil war.
However, things have changed a lot since now the joint statement after the meeting between foreign ministers of the two countries stressed the need for the Syrian government to take full control of all its territories and “end the presence of armed militias”. Such is the nature of realpolitik in contemporary times where the bitter memories of the past have to be brushed away as if they never happened, for the present to improve and the future to look drastically different and positive.
Bahrain’s resumption of ties with Qatar
Another, albeit comparatively less significant, development in the region is the announcement that Bahrain would lift trade and travel restrictions, resuming its ties with Qatar. Bahrain is the last of the four countries to do so as the rest of the states that imposed an embargo on Qatar – Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt – had already lifted the blockade in January 2021.
It seems that the Arabs states have realized that they have a lot to gain from cooperation rather than holding grudges and animosity against each other. In the larger scheme of things, the diplomatic overtures have a global significance in the backdrop of the U.S-China strategic competition but that is a debate for another time.
The Middle East is always deemed as a region fraught with intra and inter-state rifts coupled with the interests of international players like the United States and China because of its oil resources and security situation. However, the pace at which the diplomatic efforts have manifested indicates that regional leadership has come to the realization that peace is the prerequisite for stability and prosperity.
Lessons for South Asian countries
It is not a revelation per se, but rather a reinvention of the wheel, that regional cooperation always stimulates economic progress and strengthening of ties by virtue of common interest for all the participating countries.
European Union since World War II and ASEAN countries in recent decades have been the perfect illustration of this idea. And interestingly all the countries in the aforementioned collaboration frameworks had and continue to have their differences but they have managed to settle them in the larger national interest.
It is about time that South Asian countries follow the lead and come out of the spiral which has been detrimental to regional connectivity, stability, and economic progress. As the rapprochement in the Middle East is indicative, no differences are big enough that could not be reconciled. Although SAARC would ideally be an excellent forum to initiate the process, the SCO platform with its broad focus and multilateral stakeholder participation could serve the purpose as well. All it takes is the will and sincerity of purpose.
Research Officer, SVI