Saudi Arabia: Shifting Alliances?

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has made a number of subtle moves that are intriguing from both a regional and a broader Second Cold War perspective. Long a reliable friend of the US and, in recent years, an increasingly reliable friend of Israel, Saudi Arabia has recently made several exploratory moves beyond the boundaries of its relationship with Israel and several significant steps outside its relationship with the US.

Regional Moves

Saudi Arabia’s recent foreign policy moves within their own region suggest an intriguing and potentially significant shift in alliances in the Middle East. After aligning closer and closer with Israel, the other Sunni states and the US against Iran and after approving of, if not participating in, the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia is increasingly exploring relations with Iran. This stepping outside the steady relationship with Israel to increasingly, not only talking to, but dealing with Iran is a potentially significant change in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has never been willing to fight a war with Iran, but they would have loved to help push the US into fighting a war with Iran. That didn’t happen. Unable to defeat Iran, Saudi Arabia turned to exploring relations with Iran.

Annelle Sheline, Research Fellow for the Middle East Program at the Quincy Institute, told me that Saudi Arabia’s move to reducing tension with Iran reflects their new despair of the US either prioritizing Saudi preferences or being willing to act as a guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security. As reasons for the Saudi conclusion, Sheline says "From Obama’s signing of the JCPOA, to Trump’s lack of response after the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities, to Biden pulling out of Afghanistan, the past three US administrations have alarmed the Saudi rulers."

The tentative steps towards Iran have so far taken four manifestations. Most importantly, the two enemies are talking. There was a time when just negotiating with, or even talking to, Iran was poison to Saudi Arabia. At the start of 2020, though, Saudi Arabia started talking to Iran. The talks have continued with the two having met several times, most recently at a regional summit in Baghdad at the end of August and a meeting on September 21. Reports are that Saudi-Iranian talks are, once again, set to resume .

The second manifestation goes beyond talk. Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently agreed to restart Iranian exports to Saudi Arabia. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud called trade talks between the two "cordial." If the ongoing negotiations are successful, Iran says there could be "a special development" in exports to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has gone so far as to discuss helping Iran circumvent US sanctions. If that ever happened, it would represent a major shift in policy and allegiance.

The third Saudi shift toward Iran is that Saudi Arabia, once solidly opposed to a nuclear agreement with Iran or even to negotiations with Iran, has signaled for the first time that they may be able to live with a nuclear deal with Iran as long as it denies Iran nuclear weapons. That would be a significant shift away from Israel toward Iran.

Finally, in another indication of warming relations, Iran has suggested that the two nations reopen their consulates in each other’s countries and re-establish diplomatic ties.

Broader Cold War Moves

In addition to regional moves away from Israel toward Iran, Saudi Arabia has made bold steps out of the US camp in the Second Cold War. These Cold War steps have involved turning toward Russia and China in at least three ways.

The regional moves and broader Cold War moves are not wholly unrelated. Sheline told me that "investigating closer partnerships with other external players like China and Russia" also necessitates warming relations with Iran. "Neither China nor Russia will go along with Saudi desires to pressure Iran," Sheline said, so "the Saudis know that they’ll have to have a less combative relationship with Tehran if they hope to partner productively with Moscow or Beijing."

One way that Saudi Arabia has warmed relations, not only with Iran, but simultaneously with Russia and China is by becoming a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on the same day Iran became a permanent member in an important move that went almost completely unreported. The SCO is a very important body that includes, amongst other nations, nuclear powers Russia, China, India and Pakistan. It is specifically intended as an economic and foreign policy counterweight to the US in an attempt to rebalance the US led unipolar world into a multipolar one. And that is the body that Saudi Arabia is dialoguing and partnering with.

Saudi Arabia has also made significant moves towards both China and Russia bilaterally. Saudi Arabia’s moves toward China are diplomatic and economic. Saudi Arabia has been a "priority" in China’s Middle Eastern diplomacy, according to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. Yi expressed a willingness "to be Saudi Arabia’s long-term, reliable and stable good friend and partner and, strikingly, characterized the China-Saudi Arabia relationship as a "comprehensive strategic partnership." In a statement that will alarm the US, China promised to "actively participate" in Saudi Arabia’s major development projects and further synergize Saudi Arabia into the Belt and Road Initiative. For their part, the Saudi foreign minister called China "a truly credible strategic partner."

The Saudi moves toward Russia are military. On August 24, Saudi Arabia made the bold move of signing an agreement with Russia to develop joint military cooperation.

All three of these moves toward Russia and China are bound to alarm the US, just as the moves toward Iran are bound to alarm both Israel and the US.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.