For decades, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have witnessed contrasting periods of overt hostility and burgeoning rapprochement. Confrontation and conflict of interests between the two rivals in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Afghanistan is evidence of the multidimensional nature of their competition. The dangerous escalatory tensions in 2019-2020 throughout the region served as a wake-up call. Leaders are now considering ways to build a sustainable and inclusive regional framework for peace and cooperation, to transition from today’s conflict-fraught state to a more harmonious future.

The complexities of the region’s security environment defeated efforts made in the past with a view to reduce tensions and tackle insecurity, fed by continuing rivalry and mistrust. Given the extent of such challenges to cooperation between Persian Gulf countries, some regional experts say disentanglement efforts are tantamount to untying “a Gordian knot.”

Yet, with a new US President in office and Washington championing a return to diplomacy in the Middle East and around the world, the region has seen “a cautious return” to dialogue. Negotiations have gotten underway between Iran and the P5+1 group[1] of world powers in Vienna, for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Donald Trump pulled the US out of in 2018. Meanwhile, direct talks have started separately between Tehran and Riyadh – which cut its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in 2016 – as well as between the UAE, other Gulf countries, and Iran.

The region has seen “a cautious return” to dialogue.

“There seems to be a small window of opportunity which is the result of both short term and longer-term factors: the Biden administration’s move away from Trump’s maximum pressure policy and renewed diplomatic efforts; and a growing fatigue among all countries of the region, after years of costly conflicts and intense geopolitical rivalries that have failed to translate into clear advantages for any of the actors,” Luigi Narbone, Director of the Middle East Directions Program at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies told Inside Arabia.

Rapprochement is, therefore, viewed as the more convenient policy option in both Tehran and Riyadh.

Still, it remains to be seen how the current “window of opportunity” will be employed to reduce the urge for regional states to engage in zero-sum games and conflicts, and instead supplant confrontation with cooperation and dialogue among themselves.

Non-Traditional Security Cooperation and De-escalation

Despite obstacles at the national, regional, and international levels that have made cooperation a difficult enterprise, there are still less politicized domains outside the remit of existing rivalries, which would be of mutual interest – chief among them cultural connections, environmental concerns, water scarcity, health, and education. Not only are these matters important for all parties, but they could also lead to regional stability while keeping the security-building process alive. In other words, promoting low-key, non-governmental dialogue initiatives could act as a signal for de-escalatory intentions from all sides, against the backdrop of a lack of more formal diplomatic efforts.

These domains were among the issues discussed and debated by prominent scholars, regional experts, and policymakers who took part at the Middle East Directions (MED) annual conference held in May. The autonomous research program, part of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies in Italy, also published its findings in the form of an e-book entitled “Stepping Away from the Abyss: A Gradual Approach Towards a New Security System in the Persian Gulf,” with contributions by a dozen experts.

The conference featured guest speaker Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi scholar and analyst with strong connections to the royal court and King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Sager is also Chairman of Gulf Research Center, who had been involved in track 2 dialogues with Iranian interlocutors from 2012 to 2019.

Sager told the audience through remote conference that he and his Iranian colleagues “have almost discussed every single issue related to the Gulf and Iran which included all soft security issues.” In particular, he continued, “we talked about the media warfare; we talked about environmental issues, organized crimes, coast guard issues, so basically we produced a beautiful chart that identified each subject, the position of each party, where we agree and where we disagree.”

“That excel sheet is the base for some of the discussions that have taken place between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq lately because we have done the foundation and we have discussed all these issues,” added Sager.

Among the less political issues that can increase linkages between nations is investment in non-traditional security cooperation like the environment.

Among the less political issues that can help increase linkages and interdependencies between nations, when the political will for broader forms of cooperation takes shape, is investment in non-traditional security cooperation like the environment and climate change.

“The spread of best practices on climate change, for example, can be achieved without formal cooperation. Iran and the Arab Gulf countries have common interests in the area of water shortages, drought, desertification, and rising temperatures, which threaten to make swathes of the area uninhabitable,” Ross Harrison, a Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, explains in the MED e-book.

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Hajj as Vehicle of Diplomacy

Cultural and religious diplomacy could be another starting point to overcome religious rivalries and heal sectarian divides. More specifically, the untapped potential of the annual Hajj pilgrimage could create bridges between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

According to Rouzbeh Parsi, head of the MENA Program for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, “cultural diplomacy is one of those avenues that has to be explored and expanded on when the other ones, the political ones are much more difficult and intractable to move.”

The Hajj pilgrimage has been instrumental in fostering Tehran-Riyadh ties. Despite tensions between the two Muslim nations, there have been rare instances of dialogue over the Hajj, such as how to manage it and setting a quota over the number of pilgrims. Saudi Arabia even allowed Iranian pilgrims to attend the Hajj while it banned Qatar nationals from performing the ritual after the GCC crisis broke out in June 2017.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia compete over regional political issues, yet despite these differences and their geopolitical rivalry, the Hajj should act as a possibility to help restore diplomatic relations. If the Hajj were depoliticized it could be used as a tool to improve diplomatic relations,” writes Mahjoob Zweiri, Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, in the MED e-book.

History has shown that the Hajj pilgrimage provides both states with opportunities for at least symbolic moves. Yet such moves do not necessarily hint at an easing in mutual distrust or any effort towards wider dialogue and cooperation.

“Improved Hajj relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia can show goodwill by both countries, at the scale of the Muslim world and not just in relations between the two countries,” Zweiri explains.

The Role of Academic Exchanges   

The limited direct knowledge Iranians and Saudis have of one another “gives rise to suspicion and misconceptions.” Therefore, academic cooperation is another area that can potentially create bridges between the Persian Gulf states and open channels of communications, regardless of the toxic political environment.

“This is long-term. This is about creating socializations between societies. Between professional groups, counterparts in various societies in order to build something that can be lasting,” Rouzbeh Parsi asserted during the second day of MED panel discussion on May 21, entitled “Cultural Diplomacy and Religious De-securitization.”

To this end, and in a bid to open broader dialogue in the region, think tanks, universities, and individual academics could play an important role by sharing knowledge and creating a better understanding of “the other.”

Think tanks, universities, and individual academics could play an important role by creating a better understanding of “the other.”

“We have seen this in Europe where the Erasmus student exchange program has, in a little less than a generation, succeeded in reducing cultural differences between Europeans and creating a common European identity which goes along the national identities,” seasoned diplomat Luigi Narbone, who has served as the EU Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab countries, told Inside Arabia.

Ideally, such talks could eventually produce a regional security framework. But even if that may seem unattainable under the present circumstances, dialogue in the said areas could help ensure that a return to tensions would cause much less harm than it otherwise might.

“For non-traditional security areas (NTS), namely religious diplomacy and environment issues among others, to have maximum impact on the regional security framework, there is a need to have some kind of political détente. Nonetheless, cooperation in those areas among hostile parties could facilitate and pave the way for political dialogue by employing a series of technical steps,” Abdolrasool Divsallar, a Rome-based scholar focused on Iranian defense doctrine and security policy, explained in an interview with Inside Arabia.

“For instance, the potential of announcing merely an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh over the issue of the Hajj despite their troubling political relations could have a positive impact on ongoing security talks between the two states,” added Divsallar, who co-leads the Regional Security Initiative at the MED Program of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies.

Reasons to Remain Cautious

Given Iran’s ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh’s change of tone recently, the two countries now face a remarkable opportunity to prepare the groundwork for much-needed de-escalation and dialogue in the region. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be wary about the prospects of successful cooperation between these regional powers. The key stumbling blocks have not been overcome and, according to Luigi Narbone, “the road to detente is always full of traps and this timid process could be easily derailed by diplomatic failures, deliberate actions of spoilers or incidents.”

“If the current window of opportunity is managed carefully, it might lead to building trust and create the political will which is the precondition for dialogue. The main challenge in achieving such objectives is to create sufficient incentives for the political leaders to embark on dialogue and cooperation,” Narbone cautioned.

The Saudi leadership seems convinced that the outcome of Iran’s presidential election may not bring about a fundamental change in Iran’s regional policy.

In the meantime, the Saudi leadership seems convinced that the outcome of Iran’s presidential election may not bring about a fundamental change in Iran’s regional policy. Indeed, if the current nuclear talks in Vienna succeed, the victory of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in Iran is expected to positively impact the emerging dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh – at least partly.

“In the incoming administration, there might be relatively better arrangement between the foreign ministry and the security apparatus and groups affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” Divsallar explained. “That’s why we might see new opportunities and openings emerging for Iran’s relations with several regional actors that Iran currently has troubling relations with. I believe the next administration will turn its focus to regional Arab states. This situation may have good potential for de-escalation and engagement in dialogue between neighboring countries.”

[1] The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5); namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany. The P5+1 is often referred to as the E3+3 by European countries.