Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.

The Delicate Balance in Riyadh 

Most of the threats facing Saudi Arabia have been coming from the east, driving the Kingdom to develop alliances and counter policies. This is what makes Saudi Arabia’s recent counterintuitive rapprochement with Iran one of its most important diplomatic displays. It has taken one step toward Iran, with Chinese sponsorship, while another step with the United States is still being negotiated.

With such bold steps rearranging relations with an old ally, the United States, what is the future of the fresh relation with Tehran?

It’s too early to tell whether the project launched by President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to develop US-Saudi relationships will be successful. The details of the difficult agreement are yet to mature, and it will be the most important agreement since the Quincy Pact in 1945.

Supposing it succeeds and achieves its desired goal, the relations between the two neighboring states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, joined by geography and history but separated by the waters of the Gulf and political differences, will be put to a new test.

What distinguishes the Crown Prince’s management of Saudi Arabia’s complicated foreign relations over the past years is that it is neither meant to attract attention nor to be a zero-sum game. Even with the new arrangements with the US, it is unlikely that the Kingdom will sacrifice the gains it has made in restoring and improving its relations with Beijing and Tehran to please Washington.

When it comes to China in particular, it is normal for Riyadh to be protective of this relation considering the significant interests it offers, which will likely continue to grow. As for its relations with Tehran, they are dominated by tension and competition, with no common interests involved.

This tension was the reason behind the Saudi decisions made on both fronts: to the east with Iran to help halt and perhaps end disputes, and to the west with the Biden administration and the awaited agreement that would include the provision of weapons and defense support to counter the threats of militias, maritime pirates, drone attacks, and regional wars. All these are considerations pushing countries in the region to increase their defenses and arsenals.

In my opinion, the new US direction toward Saudi Arabia, in case an agreement is reached, will not harm Saudi-Iranian relations. On the contrary, it would be beneficial to them if Iranian intentions are truly good natured. Without a certain answer, we must assume good intentions. Perhaps the leaders in Tehran reached the conviction that reconciliation with its key neighbors was necessary.

However, betting on intentions in restoring relations that have been characterized by animosity for the past 40 years, will require trust and guarantees. A defense and weapons agreement with Washington would reinforce the new status rather than undermine it. Let’s not forget that the Biden administration itself was recently looking for ways to breathe new life into the JCPOA. With the Riyadh-Tehran route open, this mission could become easier.

Today, Riyadh is not pursuing zero-sum policies, making either friends or enemies. It has the ability to strike a balance. As Riyadh plans to increase relations with both countries, Washington will not be completely thrilled, and neither will Tehran.

However, Iran must understand Saudi Arabia’s importance for its own interests, as the former now sells around 1 million additional barrels of oil a day at almost twice the price it was selling it last year, thanks to the successful Saudi-Russian oil market understanding and the Biden administration’s lenient implementation of sanctions on its exports.

The ball is now in the court of Raisi’s government. Will it look at these developments positively or with criticism? For relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran to evolve, more effort must be made to reach achievements beyond the reopening of embassies and hosting sports games. Saudi Arabia has given China the role of mediator and arbitrator, while the United States provides balance, not only for the Gulf but for the entire world, to keep oil supplies and maritime routes running smoothly.

Improving relations with Washington shouldn’t worry China. Saudi Arabia needs Beijing strategically, since it is and will continue to be the biggest buyer of its oil for some years. China also needs Saudi Arabia to guarantee its large oil supplies.

Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia conclude defense agreements with China? The truth is that Beijing is the one avoiding this. Despite being the largest buyer of oil, and its increasing need for the commodity, unlike Britain in the past and the US currently, its policy does not rely on military power to protect its interests in the Gulf. It doesn’t have numerous barges, aircraft carriers and military bases in the region and it stays out of regional conflicts, relying only on its enormous economic power to reach its goals.

What is currently happening in the Gulf is rare, and the irony is not lost on anyone, especially compared to what is happening in the South China Sea, where the United States and China are in direct opposition with military mobilization and opposing alliances. In the Gulf, however, both forces coexist through their good relations with Saudi Arabia.

All parties have an interest in maintaining and developing this balance and harmony through Riyadh, where their interests meet, instead of waging wars.