A glimmer of hope has appeared in the Middle East with the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish relations after seven years of hostility that posed a direct threat to stability and security in the Gulf and fuelled conflicts stretching from Yemen to Syria. Saudi Arabia severed its ties with Iran in 2016, when protesters stormed the kingdom’s embassy in Teheran following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Saudi Shi’ite cleric. Tensions peaked in 2019, when a missile and drone assault on a key Saudi oil installation briefly disrupted half of the kingdom’s crude production in an attack believed to have been overseen by Iran. One victim of the collapse in bilateral relations was Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Houthi rebels that Iran has supported.
Hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia – which are the most significant military powers in the Middle East along with Israel, Turkey and Egypt – made the region an extremely dangerous place. The signing of the accord between the two rivals, brokered by China, therefore represents a significant moment of opportunity in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran will reopen their respective embassies within two months, and they have agreed to reactivate a lapsed security cooperation agreement as well as older trade, investment and cultural pacts.