It is surprising that an event which is very likely to completely change the current dynamics in the Middle East and by extension the world including Africa, has generated relatively little comment except in the area itself. The event, which seemed to take most of the media completely by surprise, was the détente between former arch enemies – Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In a move brokered by China, the two Middle East superpowers announced a resumption of relations, including on trade and security. The announcement was made on March 10 in Beijing, the capital of China. The implications are quite stupendous in their reach.
The handshake between Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, and Minister of State of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi looking on, seems to have wiped away four decades of bitter animosity between these two powerful oil states and in the process to have shattered the prevailing power balance in the region. It has also elevated China’s image to that of an honest broker for peace and left the US and Israel floundering in effort to find a new role in the region.
Over the last four decades, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the politics of the region have been divided into two basic camps – the largely Sunni Arab states supported by the US and Shia Iran cast as the dangerous troublemaker and punished by sets of draconian Western sanctions and increasingly isolated.
More recently the country’s rulers have faced increasingly vociferous and bolder civilian demonstrations against harsh religious laws and their implementation that targeted women and girls in particular but which are also being challenged by the country’s youth. Despite being one of the region’s biggest oil producers, the sanctions regime has hollowed out the economy.
Since 2015, Iran and Saudi Arabia (leading a coalition of Gulf States with logistical and armament support from the US) have also been engaged in one of the world’s most brutal proxy wars in Yemen. The impact on the civilian population has been described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Throw into the mix the seemingly endless but utterly destructive civil war in Syria; the paralysing dread of the Islamic State and Al Queda terror campaigns which have spilled over into parts of North Africa and the Sahel; the attacks on shipping in the Gulf and oil facilities on shore; the Arab Spring inspired insurrections and their subsequent repressions and the growing army of on the shorelines of the southern Mediterranean desperate to get a toe-hold into the promised land of Europe – and you got the perfect picture of an Arab/Islamic world just one step away from total chaos.
As if the underlying tensions were not enough, an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016 by a mob protesting the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia led to the severance of whatever loose ties there were between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Several other Arab states followed Saudia’s lead – UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and Sudan all followed suit.
But the Arab show of unity against Iran was not as solid at it might have appeared on the outside. Fault lines had appeared after the 2010 Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamist parties supported by Qatar and Turkey on one side and The Quartet, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt battling to retain the traditional status quo.
Despite its enormous wealth, its powerful geographical location at the centre of the most valuable trading routes connecting the East and the West, and a generally well-educated and self-aware population that shared a common religion and an interconnected and ancient culture, the Arab/Islamic world was a house divided against itself and therefore prey to manipulation from outside forces – of which there has been no shortage.
Burst of unexpected rainfall
It is against this backdrop that the Iran-Saudi détente has landed like a burst of unexpected rainfall to cool and calm the smouldering embers of a fire that has been threatening to burst into full flame for over 40 years.
It also comes at a pivotal moment in world history during which, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, a major nuclear power, Russia, is engaged in a full-fledged war on European soil; the US is locked into a cold war with China and some of the most powerful countries of the South – the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are refusing to take sides in the Ukraine war and seriously believe they, and not the Western hegemony led by the US, are better qualified to lead the world.
The détente also comes 20 years after the invasion of Iraq which politicians, academics and columnists on both sides of the Atlantic have now agreed “was the worst foreign policy catastrophe in modern Western history” and 12 years after NATO’s ugly and eventually catastrophic intervention in Libya.
The ill-thought out and clumsily executed 2011 bombing campaign in Libya by NATO was led enthusiastically by the then President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameroon. Ghadaffi’s merciless execution by rebels, captured live on film, and the subsequent scramble for power and a bigger slice of the oil revenues cake, not only plunged Libya into a political vortex that has not been resolved even now but unleashed a torrent of armed groups into the Sahel who continue to terrorise the sub-region to this day as well.
The soul-searching in Western media and academia – including BBC radio’s excellent series on the Iraq war, Shock and War by Gordon Corera who interviews many of the principal players) has now centred on how such a flawed series of decisions to go to war and the follow up could have been taken and what lessons from that disaster should never be forgotten.
For the region, the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion and ‘the hell on earth’ that was let loose after it have renewed deep reflections on the ramifications of which continue to scar the country and the region to this day and is a reminder of what can happen when foreign powers take it upon themselves to sort out your problems.
It is significant that China, which unlike the US has maintained friendly relations with all Middle East countries and studiously avoided taking sides in any conflict, should be the final match-maker in the Saudi-Iran alliance. Already, the détente has been welcomed up and down the region.
Even prior to the Saudi-Iran handshake, regional fractures were already being patched up. The 2021 Al-Ula Declaration saw Qatar and the Gulf Quartet bury their differences while Turkey moved closer to the Arab centre having resolved its own contentions with the UAE, Egypt and Saudia.
The massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria and the scale of destruction of property and loss of human lives also seems to have brought the Arab world closer. Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, relegated to villain status by the West and generally isolated since the start of the civil war in 2011, visited the UAE twice, as well as Oman. The UAE pledged $100m towards the earthquake assistance.
With Iran (the only non-Arab state alongside Israel in the Middle East) now seemingly becoming more comfortable in the broader Muslim axis in the region, the Middle East is becoming a very different place.
The source of its greatest threats and dangers had always been in-fighting and animosity within the region, rather than from outside forces – although the US-led armed interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya had looked more like old-fashioned invasions rather than liberation campaigns.
Now that it seems the US and the West in general has lost their appetite for ‘boots on the ground’ approaches, and the bitterest regional foes physically and symbolically embracing each other, the region – fingers crossed – can look forward to a prolonged era of peace and development.
Massive diplomatic coup
For China, this has been a massive diplomatic coup. The Middle East has become perhaps the most critical factor in China’s growth strategy, including the success or otherwise of its Belt and Road initiative as well as the build the build-up of its military capacities.
China imports half its oil from the Middle East and is Saudi Arabia’s largest single customer while Iran relies on China for a substantial part of its foreign trade. In In 2021, according to the LSE, “China’s imports from the Middle East were $130 billion versus $34 billion for the US, and China’s exports to the region were $129 billion compared with the US at $48 billion,” making China the region’s most important trading partner by far.
The easing of tensions represented particularly by the Saudi-Iran détente which also in a way reduces the centuries-old animosity and distrust between Shia and Sunni Islam is sweet music to China which could ill afford disruptions to its oil supplies and the loss of its lucrative markets. It also effectively sidelines its greatest economic rival, the US and builds on its fresh image as a global broker for peace – the manifestation of its ‘win-win solution’ philosophy.
What does all this mean to Africa? The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are already some of the biggest bilateral investors in Africa. Investments had reached $3,9bn by 2022 and the UAE alone now ranking as the fourth biggest, after China, Europe and the US with investments of around $1.2bn. Saudi Arabia is also a large investor in agriculture.
While it may take some time it is also likely that Iran’s trade with African countries will increase as will that of Turkey. Given the strong historical and cultural ties between Africa and the Middle East, a peaceful neighbour at ease with itself on its northern continental shores will certainly increase trade, investment and cultural exchanges for Africa.
If the current momentum towards reconciliation in the Middle East can be maintained, the region will for the first time in two centuries, be able to shape its own destiny to suit its own needs rather than be seen an extension of Superpower ‘spheres of influence’. Africa is very much set on achieving the same goal and there will be a great deal of mutually interesting areas to explore.