Middle East archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to mend ties after almost 7 years of hostility


Abu Dhabi, UAE

Saudi Arabia and Iran announced on Friday that they had agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties after seven years of hostility, in a deal between regional archrivals that could have wide-ranging implications for the Middle East.

Riyadh and Tehran plan to reopen their embassies in an agreement mediated by China, a joint statement by Saudi Arabia and Iran said on Friday.

Talks had been ongoing since March 6 in Beijing between Iran’s National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani, Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council adviser Mosaed Bin Mohammad Al-Aiban and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, according to Iranian state media.

Video of the signing ceremony aired by Iranian media showed officials seated around tables on opposite sides with the Saudi Arabian, Iranian and Chinese flags around them.

“This Beijing dialogue has turned a new page for the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Both sides have shown the willingness to improve relations and have reached consensus on key concerns,” Wang said.

Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen embassies within two months, they said.

“The foreign ministers of the two countries will meet each other to implement this decision and make necessary arrangements for the exchange of ambassadors,” the joint statement said. “The two sides agree to respect the sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran had previously held talks aimed at reconciliation in Oman and Iraq.

Riyadh severed ties with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital following the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia. Since then, they have fought a proxy war that has embroiled a number of neighboring countries, bringing the region ever closer to war.

Oil facilities in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have come under attack in recent years by actors believed to be backed by Iran, including Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia has however been engaged in direct talks with the Houthis.

The move comes as China expands its diplomatic outreach in the Arab world. In December, Chinese President Xi Jinping was welcomed in Riyadh in an extravagant ceremony as part of a visit that brought together 14 Arab heads of state. That was just months after a relatively low-key meeting with US President Joe Biden, whose relationship with Saudi Arabia has been frosty.

“China’s role as a broker is striking, and could foreshadow a bolder diplomatic position,” said Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House think-tank in London. “But we should be cautious in overstating Beijing’s intentions. This is more about China’s interests in the region. China has brought together two key actors regional and economic actors for the purpose of reducing regional tensions and facilitating greater economic engagement with both.”

The rapprochement also comes as Tehran finds itself increasingly isolated on the global stage. Talks to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact with world powers are frozen and relations with Western states have faced further strains due to the Islamic Republic’s brutal crackdown on protests that started in September.

Iran’s main international ally Russia is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, while China, its other ally, has lately been courting Tehran’s archrival Saudi Arabia.

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