Time for a “reset” in Saudi Arabia-Iran relations

31 August 2016


The Sunni-Shiite antagonism remains at the core of the current events in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Amid the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the unceasing tensions in Lebanon, Bahrain and the Gulf, and the wave of terrorism also attacking Europe, the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran shows no sign of decrease and is ever more a matter of international concern.

The frictions of the past three decades have never resulted in irreversible escalations, with confrontational phases shifting into détente attempts. However, today’s scenario is more volatile than in the past, as the emergence of Daesh and the comeback of sectarian and ethnic fault lines are shaking the integrity of the regional order, a century after its formation with the Sykes-Picot agreements.

A rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran is essential for the stabilization of the area. Therefore, a more effective mediation by the international diplomacy and the major powers, primarily the United States and Russia, should promote specific initiatives engaging Saudi Arabia and Iran in joint efforts against Daesh and in the resolution of the ongoing conflicts.

At the same time, to boost the cooperative security prospects between the two countries on a strategic level, it is also necessary to address the political-religious dimension of the crisis. A process of genuine intra-Muslim dialogue, involving the highest religious and government authorities, would allow the smoothing over of the historical, ideological, and geopolitical causes that still fuel the hostilities, clearing the way for a reconciliation based on the return to the common roots and foundations and on their appreciation.

The premise of such a dialogue already exists and dates back to the summit convened in Mecca by the late Saudi King Abdullah in June 2008, with the participation of Iranian representatives.

In order for this process to restart, Turkey could play a key role. Despite the contrasts in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has kept alive its relationship with Tehran and has recently relaunched it in the diplomatic arena, while the developments subsequent to the Arab Spring have led to the strengthening of Turkey’s partnership with Riyadh. Therefore, Ankara is well placed to encourage a reset of Saudi Arabia-Iran relations and, to this end, it could avail itself of a valuable tool: interreligious dialogue.

The Turkish chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, inaugurated in Istanbul last April, could devote its work to the creation of new conditions for a peaceful coexistence between Sunnis and Shiites, thus favoring the encounter between Riyadh and Tehran, with a positive impact on the regional crises.

The achievement of a new ecumenism between the two major souls of Islam would constitute a powerful antidote against sectarian fanaticism, discrimination, and violence, and would greatly benefit the future of the Christian communities and of all ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.