Saudi Arabia Steps Out

It should not be so surprising that much of Washington’s attention toward the Saudi-Iranian agreement on March 10 to restore diplomatic relations focused on China. After all, at a time when the U.S. security debate is increasingly centered on great power competition, China playing an unprecedented diplomatic role in the Middle East counts as big news.

But by paying so much attention to China, Americans risk missing the most important part of this agreement: the changing regional role of Saudi Arabia. A week of smoothly integrated diplomacy not only showed Saudi Arabia to be a skillful diplomatic actor, but also a creative one. The popular image of Saudi Arabia in the United States is that of a largely passive consumer of U.S.-provided security. With the agreement, Saudi Arabia cast off the passivity of many decades, and demonstrated it is a diplomatic force to be reckoned with.

It is useful, at the outset, to recall exactly what it means—and does not mean—for Saudi Arabia and Iran to have diplomatic relations. They had diplomatic relations in 2011, when two Iranians were accused of plotting to assassinate then-Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, at Café Milano. They had diplomatic relations in 2015 when a stampede in Mecca killed 400 Iranian pilgrims, and Iranian officials decried Saudi incompetence while crowds flooded Tehran streets chanting “death to Al Saud.” And they had diplomatic relations in 2016 when Saudi Arabia beheaded a prominent Saudi Shia cleric who had been critical of the royal family, Nimr al-Nimr. The riots at the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution led to the break in relations. Then, as now, the two countries have been locked in conflicts that extend from Yemen to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and even the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. While there may seem to be a gradual warming in ties, they would be warming from a deep freeze. Each has a great deal it could give the other, but mutual suspicion runs very deep. 

It is useful, too, to recall how long efforts have been underway to explore common ground among the two sides. Former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi began efforts two years ago, and the Omanis continued them. The United States, France, and other countries have been supportive, and neighboring Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates resumed bilateral ties in August. A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has been gestating for years.

It would be uncharitable to say that all that China provided to the negotiating process was catering, but it is also hard to imagine that China did much either to reassure or to pressure either side. China’s diplomatic history in the Middle East is a record of seeking participation without deep involvement. China has sought to play a more active role in Arab-Israel diplomacy, where it encourages both sides to show mutual respect and pursue win-win solutions. It was a party to the Iran nuclear deal, where it similarly encouraged all sides to show mutual respect and pursue win-win solutions. Some have argued that since China represents about 30 percent of Iran’s global trade, China has leverage over Tehran. But China has no record of being willing to sacrifice its own interests in the pursuit of some greater common good. China uses its bilateral ties to advance its own interests—sometimes with the countries themselves, and sometimes with others (such as the United States). There is no reason to think China would act any differently in this case, and no evidence to suggest it ever promised to.

From an Iranian perspective, the agreement represents the implementation of the strategy announced when President Ebrahim Raisi came into office in August 2021: de-emphasize reaching an agreement with Western powers and focus on its own neighborhood. But Iran does not seem to have gained much in that neighborhood. In fact, it has mostly promised concessions. Regional proxies will be pulled back some (but still not so much as to remove them from the board altogether.) Meanwhile, the Iranian economy continues to reel, and U.S.-led sanctions are taking a heavy toll. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continues to bear down on the Iranian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia may have agreed to curb the broadcasting activities of its anti-regime Iran International channel, but protests died down months ago. There is some loose talk of investment. But overall, the Iranians were not the big winners.

By contrast, the Saudis came out on top. The campaign plan, if one can call it that, lasted a week. First, the Saudi government leaked that it was exploring ties with Israel, simultaneously showing its openness and its toughness. The next day, it announced the deal in Beijing. The deal in Beijing was followed quickly by the announcement that the Saudi Public Investment Fund was launching a new airline, then followed two days later by an announcement it was buying at least 78 Boeing widebody jets.

The week’s worth of events and announcements were sequenced to have a particular effect. The most important was to show that Saudi Arabia has agency over its own future. It did more than hand a diplomatic victory to China, its leading oil customer. It bookended that victory with actions that were meant to appeal to the United States—its leading security provider—and put Israel—a prospective partner—on notice. The Boeing deal reinforced not only that Saudi Arabia is a serious economic player, but also that it is willing to act independently and without an entangling set of diplomatic negotiations and concessions.

The way to see Saudi Arabia’s March diplomacy is as a rebuttal to its October diplomacy, which was far less skillful. Then, Saudi Arabia caught the White House by surprise when it pushed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allied producers (OPEC+) to cut oil production by two million barrels per day in the weeks before U.S. midterm elections. That this was against White House advice is a secondary issue; the more important element for Saudi Arabia was having a key ally feel betrayed and lied to at a sensitive time. In an interview with CNN, President Biden promised “consequences,” although in the event, the consequences never came.

This time around, the Biden administration mostly shrugged. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan noted an ongoing dialogue with the Saudis about their negotiations with Iran, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference, “From our perspective, anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict, and curb in any way dangerous or destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing.”

The Obama administration was fond of arguing that the Middle East needed to find its own equilibrium, where formerly adversarial countries continued to compete, yet their competition was contained and they engaged with each other against shared threats. Implicit in that vision was a sense that the United States would play a supportive but less active role, and countries would take more responsibility for their own security and their own futures.

Saudi Arabia has done just that. It will have its hands full managing its new engagement with Iran, and reining in the variety of Iranian actions throughout the region. It will try to ensure China remains involved, pushing Iran to live up to its commitments. It is likely to engage more actively in diplomacy to end its eight-year engagement in Yemen, and it will need to work with neighbors, especially the UAE, to align policy on both security and energy issues. And Saudi Arabia will need to engage deeply and in a sustained way with the United States, whose security guarantees remain vital to the defense of the Kingdom.

This is likely the beginning of a new era of Saudi diplomacy, and it will mean much more work for the Saudis. Like most diplomacy, many of its wins are likely to be partial. But to a degree unseen in decades, the Saudis are stepping out on their own.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program