Saudi-Iran thaw bodes well for Middle East

By Zhao Jinglun
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 30, 2014
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Barely one year ago, the Saudis urged Washington to "cut off the snake's head," meaning to attack and vanquish Iran. They were mortal enemies, rivals for influence in the Middle East.

We are now seeing a major change taking place in the Middle East: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has invited his Iran counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to Riyadh. The Iranian foreign minister has already visited several other Gulf Arab states, but has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.

The ruler of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, will undertake a state visit to Iran.

Ten years ago, in 2004, Jordan king Abdullah II warned about a "Shiite Crescent" stretching from the Levant via Iran to the Persian Gulf and into the Arabian Peninsula, embracing Iraq, Lebanon and Syria backed by a resurgent Iran -- a new regional force that would alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects the Sunnis and Shiites, and pose new challenges to the interests of the United States and its allies.

For an entire decade, the struggle between the two Islamic sects intensified, with Iran supporting the Shiite government of Iraq, the Bashar al-Assad Baath government of Syria, the Shiite protesters in Bahrain, the populist Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and the Hizbullah in Lebanon, humiliating the famous Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies support the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, those rebels trying to overthrow Assad, the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain against the Shiite demonstrators, the secular and Salafi currents in North Africa against the Muslim Brotherhood, Saad al-Hariri (a Sunni) and the March 14 coalition in Syria against Hizbullah.

George W. Bush's overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the takeover of the Iraqi government in 2005 by the Da'wa (Islamic Mission) Party headed by Nouri al-Maliki intensified the fight against the Wahabi Islam, Saudi Arabia's state religion.

Lebanon was also split between Hizbullah-Aoun (March 8) and the Sunni-Christian alliance with Hizbullah joining Assad in his fight against the Suuni rebels.

During the Arab Spring, the Shiite minority in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia demonstrated against Riyadh and the Shiite majority in Bahrain protested against the Sunni monarchy. The latter was brutally put down by Saudi and UAE troops.

Yet with the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new Iran president last summer, Iran began to soften its stand. Teheran agreed to limit its nuclear activity, and wants to improve diplomatic relations with the United States, Europe and with its Arab neighbors, especially the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia is also making important changes in its foreign policy. Right before Obama visited King Abdullah in Riyadh, Bandar Bin Sultan was fired as intelligence minister. He was former ambassador to the United States and reputedly fanatically anti-Iran. His half-brother was later fired as deputy secretary of defense.

Bashar al-Assad seems to be winning the Syrian civil war. As a result, the rebels may no longer seem a very attractive investment. More importantly, the most effective rebel force, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is proving more dangerous than the Saudis. It is not inconceivable for the Saudis to join forces with Iran in their fight against al-Qaeda.

The thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia is good news. Nevertheless, the situation in the Middle East remains an excessively complex one. We'll have to wait and see what comes next.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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