Better Late Than Never


Saudi Arabia and its partners are finally seeking dialogue with Iran. They should have done so years ago.


By Abdel Bari Atwan

Three years ago I called in this column for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to engage in dialogue with Iran to resolve their ongoing conflicts on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests.


The response was furious. The big guns of the Saudi government’s electronic army were deployed to launch a broadside against me. Employing their distinctive lexicon, they accused me of being an agent of the faith-denying, fire-worshipping, dissolute Persian Shia infidels, and hurled all manner of other vulgar abuse at me laced with sectarian and racist epithets, much of it too base to be repeatable. The same was done to others who expressed similar views.


On Wednesday, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah flew to Tehran – capital of the ‘fire-worshippers’ – bearing a message from the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, as delegated by the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at their recent summit in Bahrain. The message’s purpose: to initiate a dialogue with the Iranian leadership to settle the two sides’ differences.


When he met his Iranian opposite number Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Kuwaiti minister affirmed ‘the need to end disagreements and resolve misunderstandings between the states of the region through frank dialogue in a calm atmosphere, and take a forward-looking view to confront the threats facing the region, especially terrorism.’ He also stressed ‘the numerous common historical, cultural, and religious bonds’ linking Iran and the Arab Gulf states.


The Saudi-led GCC states are taking this long overdue step from a position of weakness, at a time when they face a host of domestic and regional threats as well as new challenges on the international level.


They are losing their war-by-proxy in Syria, and are bogged down in a costly direct war in Yemen which they thought would be won in weeks but is dragging on towards its third year.


Their treasuries are empty or heavily burdened with domestic and foreign debt — their financial reserves having evaporated and their budget deficits ballooned — and the collapse of oil prices has forced them to cancel infrastructure projects and slash social spending.


While Iran and Turkey occupied pride of place at this week’s Astana conference on Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who lavished billions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons on the Syrian opposition, were absent. They were not invited, as part of an obvious and deliberate policy of sidelining them.


Things will get even worse for the Gulf states if the new US president, Donald Trump, follows through on his threat to force them to hand over a quarter of their revenues in exchange for American protection, or gives the go-ahead for victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts for compensation that could amount to trillions of dollars.


Despite all that, better late than never.


Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair has suddenly abandoned his characteristic hawkishness on Iran and turned into a meek dove. At his joint press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault on Tuesday, he insisted: ‘We tried to establish good relations with Iran, but the Iranian regime has not ceased its hostility and interference in the affairs of other states since the Khomeini revolution.’ He added: ‘The Kingdom has neither blown up Iranian embassies nor assassinated Iran’s diplomats, because we believe these actions to be immoral. At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring Islamic country, and it would be better for everyone if there were no disagreements or confrontations. But one hand cannot clap alone.’


If this admonition against ‘interference in the affairs of other states’ had been made 50 years ago, when Saudi Arabia largely tried to play a mediating role in regional disputes, it would have been understandable. But since then, the kingdom has used its financial muscle and religious surrogates to meddle in the domestic politics of virtually every state in the region, and many beyond it. Now, with its channeling of arms and money into Syria to create and sustain armed militias, and its devastating bombing and blockade of impoverished Yemen, it is high time Saudi Arabia’s spokesmen stopped using that phrase. It is self-incriminating and an insult to everyone’s intelligence – though this does not mean condoning Iranian interference.


With regard to Iran, had the Gulf states taken the step of seeking dialogue with it three or four years ago, when they were in a position of relative of strength, they would have had much to gain.


For one thing, they would have avoided losing hundreds of billions of dollars as a result of the oil price collapse caused by their stubborn insistence on maximizing output – despite the entreaties of their OPEC partners – in a bid to cripple the economies of Iran and Russia due to their support for the Syrian regime. Three years on, after the disastrous consequences of that policy became undeniable, Saudi Arabia was compelled to agree to lower its production without even requiring Iran to do the same, leading to a slight improvement in prices. But the damage had already been done.


More importantly, had Saudi Arabia started a dialogue with Iran to reach understandings about their differences, it may not have committed the blunder of going to war in Yemen, and suffered all the ongoing material, human, military, and political losses.


It is to be welcomed that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are now seeking to resolve their problems with Iran through talks. But they should do this is part of a wholesale reconsideration of all the mistaken, impulsive, and whimsical policies that led to the aforementioned calamities.


Iran is the Arabs’ neighbor with whom they have much in common in historical, cultural, social and religious terms. What unites them, in other words, is far greater than what separates them. All we need on the Arab side is wisdom, modesty and to act rationally, learn lessons from bitter past experience, and work to acquire the requisites of strength and stability.