Macro trends of future development in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations

In this text, I intend to focus on macro trends of future development in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations at three international, regional, and national levels.
16 January 2023
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Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini

In this text, I intend to focus on macro trends of future development in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations at three international, regional, and national levels. Each trend carries opportunities and threats in Iran's relations with any country, including Saudi Arabia. Based on the goal that the Islamic Republic has drawn in the perspective of relations with Saudi Arabia in 2030, it can use these macro trends to realize its vision. The ideal model in the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia until 2030 is transitioning from the confrontation-competition model to the cooperation-competition model.

Before addressing the macro trends, it is necessary to present the assumptions of the subject. The model of cooperation-competition has been deduced based on the following theoretical and historical assumptions:

  1. We accept that the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are confrontations, not conflicts. The confrontation is also a monitor of the possibility of cooperation. In contrast, we can define the common geography of cooperation. Cooperation is not possible in conflict. Iran and Saudi Arabia ideologically have a Shiite-Wahhabi conflict. Still, they are geopolitically confrontation, which means they can cooperate as well, as they did in the past.
  2. We accept that relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia strongly depend on the balance of power and geopolitical Iran and Saudi Arabia's confrontations and rivalries throughout history have mainly resulted from regional rivalries rather than domestic issues.
  3. We accept that the history of cooperation between the two countries in regional issues makes it possible to realize the cooperation-competition model. The two countries have cooperated at different times, the years of de-escalation following Saddam's attack on Kuwait in 1991-2003 and the years of cooperation after the 33-day war in 2006-2010.
  4. We accept that the model of neighborly relations with Saudi Arabia differs from that of relations with the western, eastern, and northern neighbors. The relations model between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been more subject to realist logic. This model differs from Iran's neighborhood relations with Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
  5. We accept that the solution to many of Iran's problems in the region depends on the de-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Solving the problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia is the basis for solving the problems of Iran with the UAE, Bahrain, and the Arab world. Even some tensions between Iran and the West depend on these relations. Saudi Arabia's role in America's withdrawal from the JCPOA is an example of this fact.

 

Macro trends of future development at the international level

  1. The influence of the "millennium effect" on the actors of the international system: The global macro trends that all actors plan for are called the millennium effect. These macro trends include the shift of power from the West to the East (drawing the asymmetric distribution of power between the West and the East in 2040 by the United States Department of Defense), increasing social inequalities, increasing urbanization, conflict over resources (water and food) and climate change (destructive effects of climate change), increasing instability and increasing the probability of war due to these macro trends.
  2. Intensification of polarities in international security: the transition of power from the West to the East also increases the polarity in international security discourse.

The emergence of new powers, especially in Asia, China's empowerment, and the role of non-state actors with different roles (negative and positive) are signs of this polarity. The war in Ukraine has accelerated this polarity. The consensus of Europe and America in approving the anti-Iranian resolution of the Council of Governors, which was approved on Thursday, and the opposition of China and Russia is one example of this polarity.

  1. The process of antagonizing Iran in the international security discourse: In the international security discourse that is woven in the West, Iran is an "Otherness." Iran is depicted as a country that is looking for an atomic bomb to destroy Israel; it has challenged the international order and is oppressing women inside.
  2. Political-network economy: Until 2030, despite the increase in the power of eastern countries, the level of participation of countries in the international trade network and liberal order defines their contribution to the global economy and politics. Even China is growing in this trade network with capitalist rules.
  3. Optimal governance based on technology: Nations, especially in the Middle East countries, want good governance more than democracy, governance that provides them with more security and prosperity. This governance strongly depends on the countries' contribution to the international trade network and technology.

 

Macro trends of future development at the regional level

  1. Balancing from a distance: The priority of the great powers in the Middle East, especially after the Syrian war, is not to directly interfere and manage the interests of their representatives in the region, what Stephen Walt calls OFFSHORE BALANCING.
  2. Security bipolarity in the region: A security bipolarity was formed after the Syrian war. On one side, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, The Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī), the Houthis with the tactical support of Russia, and on the other side America-Israel and the overt and hidden security alliance of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, and Egypt. In the meantime, third forces like Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and Oman cooperate with both sides on various issues according to their interests.
  3. Turning Iran into a problem and the Zionist regime into a solution: Israel determined to intensify the bipolarity mentioned in the region, to join the third forces to its pole, and to turn Iran into a problem and itself into a solution. The transaction of the century and the process of normalization is an examples of the meaning that is developing and growing in the peripheral environment of Iran.
  4. Negative and positive role of non-state actors: Non-state security and trade actors will affect regional equations. For example, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī can disrupt the order of a country and region (negative role) and help create stability and order (positive role). Companies that play a role in circumventing sanctions will also be important in trade terms.
  5. Increasing the gap between rich and poor countries: The increase of weak governments like Afghanistan, the investment gap, effective technologies in reducing the destructive effects of climate change, and the increasing severity of Western sanctions against Iran and Russia will increase the economic gap of countries.

 Macro trends of future development at the national level (Saudi Arabia)

  1. The trend of secularization of Saudi Arabia's macro policies, especially the goals of the 2030 document and the procedures that can be seen in Saudi society among the young generation, and the decline in the role of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia are signs of strengthening the trend of secularism in Saudi Arabia.
  2. The emergence of the young generation in Saudi governance: The second generation of rulers in Saudi Arabia, whose leader is Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Salman's belief system on domestic and foreign issues shows that the new leaders have a new plan for Saudi domestic and foreign policy.
  3. The amount of foreign investment and the problem of regional stability: Saudi Arabia is in dire need of domestic and regional stability. The ambitious program of Mohammed bin Salman shows that domestic and regional stability is vital for this country.
  4. Diversification in Saudi foreign policy: After the Arab Spring, we have witnessed Riyadh's determination to reduce its security dependence on America and start a diversification policy based on expanding relations with the European Union, Russia, and China.
  5. Endogenous regional order instead of exogenous order: The exogenous order in the Middle East is based on the central role of America, while the endogenous order is based on the major role of regional powers. Saudi Arabia's need for stability, diversification in its foreign policy, and even the process of normalization prove that Saudi Arabia prefers endogenous order in the Middle East with the participation of regional powers in regional engineering by the White House.

Each of the above trends has opportunities and threats for Iran. Iran's decision regarding the quality of relations with Saudi Arabia (confrontation-competition model or cooperation-competition model) is the first step to creating opportunities from the above trends and devising measures to reduce the threats of each of them. Companies that play a role in circumventing sanctions will also be important in trade terms.

  1. Increasing the gap between rich and poor countries: The increase of weak governments like Afghanistan, the investment gap, effective technologies in reducing the destructive effects of climate change, and the increasing severity of Western sanctions against Iran and Russia will increase the economic gap of countries.

 Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, senior expert of the Institute for Political and International Studies

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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