In terms of its impact on global geopolitics, the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the People’s Republic of China, is nothing short of seismic.

In March, high-ranking security officials from both countries met in Beijing under Chinese auspices and, to the utter shock of most followers of global politics, announced that they were re-establishing diplomatic relations that had been severed after a series of unfortunate events in 2016. The deal was sealed when the foreign ministers of both states met again in Beijing, earlier this month.

There are three major takeaways from the Saudi-Iranian thaw: firstly, that the decline of American power in the Middle East is well underway; secondly, that Chinese diplomacy is growing and making its presence felt in unexpected places; and thirdly, that there are opportunities in the détente between Riyadh and Tehran that Pakistan can benefit from, should it play its cards right and put its own chaotic house in order.

But before we discuss these takeaways, a brief overview of the Saudi-Iranian relationship over the past few decades is in order.

After decades of bitter Saudi-Iranian hostility, the surprise rapprochement between the two nations, under Chinese auspices, is likely to have important implications for the entire Eurasian region and the world. What does it mean for conflict in the Middle East, for the United States’ projection of power and for China’s future role on a global scale? And how does Pakistan stand to benefit?


The reason for the global surprise at the announcement of the re-establishment of relations between Riyadh and Tehran has much to do with the absolutely toxic nature of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the run-up to the meeting in Beijing. While many in the Western mainstream media, and some in Western academia, frame the Saudi-Iranian confrontation as a ‘cosmic’ Shia-Sunni or Arab-Ajam battle raging since the dawn of time, the reality is a bit more complex.

While it is true that sect/ethnicity have a part to play in the rivalry, and that will be discussed particularly in the Pakistan context, the discord between Iran and Saudi Arabia is, arguably, mostly geopolitical. Up till now, Saudi Arabia was firmly in the American camp, while Iran left the US-led bloc after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. From 1979 onwards, the two major Gulf powers have been on diametrically opposed geopolitical trajectories, clashing through proxies across the region.

But to illustrate how sectarian/ethnic lines blur in this conflict, we should note how Palestinian resistance group Hamas, a Sunni outfit, is in the Iranian camp. In fact, the most vocal and organised pro-Palestine demonstrations are held worldwide under Iranian auspices every Ramazan, specifically on Jumma-tul-Wida [the last Friday of Ramazan], in the shape of Yaum Al-Quds [Al Quds Day], which dates back to the era of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — the spiritual father of Iran’s revolution — himself.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the former’s trip to Jeddah in 2022 | AFP

On the other hand, Shia-majority Azerbaijan, close to Israel and by extension the US, has testy if not outrightly hostile relations with Iran. Furthermore, Persian Iran came to the aid of Arab Syria when protests, backed by the West and the Arab states, broke out against Bashar Al Assad’s regime during the Arab Spring. Suffice to say, Assad would most likely not have survived the revolt were it not for Iranian and Russian military help.

Coming back to Saudi-Iran relations, the major rupture was witnessed in 2016, after Riyadh executed Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. The late cleric was a vocal critic of the House of Saud and was politically active in the oil-rich Shia-majority east of the kingdom. The reaction to the execution in Iran was considerable, as mobs attacked Saudi missions in Tehran as well as in the holy city of Mashhad. Though ties were not exactly cordial before the execution, relations nosedived very quickly after these events.

For example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the actual power behind the Saudi throne, compared Iran’s Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei to Hitler in 2017 and talked of taking “the battle” into Iran. Reacting to the Hitler jibe, the Iranian foreign ministry termed MBS “immature” and asked him to ponder over the fate of other Middle Eastern strongmen.

Considering the aforementioned toxicity, the change of tone and cautious smiles on Saudi and Iranian lips in Beijing signals a major shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics. This begs the question: just what changed so dramatically that, two states that had up till very recently been at daggers drawn, were now talking about peace and Islamic brotherhood?

Perhaps one impetus behind the détente, particularly for the Saudis, was the feeling that Pax Americana, at least in the region if not globally, was in decline, and the states of the Mideast would have to sort out their problems on their own.

Considering the aforementioned toxicity, the change of tone and cautious smiles on Saudi and Iranian lips in Beijing signals a major shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics. This begs the question: just what changed so dramatically that, two states that had up till very recently been at daggers drawn, were now talking about peace and Islamic brotherhood?


Perhaps a major wake-up call in Riyadh came in the shape of the 2019 drone attacks targeting Aramco’s oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The attacks, hitting critical oil infrastructure, were a gut punch for the Saudis. Though the pro-Iran Houthi militia of Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks, there was widespread speculation that the operation was more likely the handiwork of Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Regardless of the geographical origins of the attacks, the consensus in Washington and Riyadh was that this was Iran’s handiwork. Yet the US, which maintains a web of military bases in the region, did nothing under President Donald Trump’s watch to confront Iran.

This, and Trump’s earlier boast that the Saudi king would not last “two weeks” without the protection of the American military machine, most likely got those who matter in Riyadh to rethink their dependence on Uncle Sam.

Under Joe Biden, things have been no different. The US president, when still a candidate for the White House, promised to make Saudi Arabia a pariah in the wake of the brutal murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Biden didn’t exactly follow up on his threat, his visit to the kingdom in August last year was no spectacular success.

The US leader was not exactly given the red-carpet welcome usually reserved by the Saudis for visiting American presidents. Moreover, the Saudis have refused to toe the American line on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Saudi foreign minister was in Moscow last month and, by all accounts, the visit appeared to be a cordial one. Furthermore, the decision earlier this month by Opec+ to cut back on oil production and raise prices was termed by the US as “inadvisable”.

Of course, this is not to suggest the Saudis and other states that have enjoyed long defence and political relations with the US are making a clean break from Washington. However, it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that Riyadh and others in the Gulf are hedging their bets and preparing for a scenario where America isn’t the only game in town.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi standing alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, earlier this year | Reuters


Another noteworthy aspect of the Saudi-Iran peace deal was the fact that China had helped broker it. In the modern era, China has mostly been a bit player in the Middle East. So, getting two of the region’s most bitter rivals to make peace was seen as a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. Writing in The Cradle, Brazilian journalist and author Pepe Escobar termed the breakthrough a “Chinese win-win”.

The apparent Chinese interest in brokering the deal seems to be influenced by Beijing’s desire to see stability in key Gulf energy markets, as well as to help bring to fruition Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream of China-led Eurasian integration under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also part.

Of course making America, China’s major geopolitical rival, look bad in the process is an added bonus.

It is also true that China comes to the table without any colonial/imperial baggage, at least where the Middle East is concerned, which is why it must have gained the trust of both Riyadh and Tehran. Unlike the US, China has not attempted regime change in the region and has not encircled Iran with a ring of military bases.

The fact is, the US could never have been an unbiased broker in the Saudi-Iran dispute, just as it has never been a neutral player in the Arab-Israeli peace process (or whatever remains of that doomed experiment). The post-1979 US-Iran relationship has been one of open confrontation, and the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, convinced those who matter in Tehran that the US cannot be trusted.

Where China’s growing role in the region is concerned, it appears it has caught the Americans off guard. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the CIA chief apparently told MBS that the US had been “blindsided” by the Saudi rapprochement with Iran and Syria.


This reflects a larger tectonic shift in the international order where, as mentioned above, American unipolarity is on the wane and a new multipolar order, led by Russia and China, and supported by the BRICS states [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa], is being born.

In fact, the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year was the first major sign that the US/European post-World War II ‘rules-based order’ was crumbling. Though the Russian invasion of a sovereign state was unsavoury, Moscow felt it was being encircled by Nato [the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation], and that the Cold War-era alliance was knocking at the gates. And most of the Global South, though sympathising with Ukraine, refused to buy the Western line that this was an existential war between democracy and autocracy.

China’s intervention in Middle Eastern diplomacy is another major sign that the West-led international order is on life support. What is more, the decision by major energy producers to consider trade in the Chinese yuan spells a mortal danger to the petrodollar. According to Escobar, “The high-speed de-dollarisation train has already left the station” and Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s decision to cut energy deals in the Chinese currency means that the era of the petroyuan is upon us.

Interestingly, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, during a recent trip to China, agreed to trade in the Brazilian and Chinese currencies, pointedly asking: “Why should every country have to be tied to the dollar for trade?”

Joe Biden was not exactly given the red-carpet welcome usually reserved by the Saudis for visiting American presidents during his trip to the country | Reuters


Naturally, the question for Pakistan arises whether it can benefit from the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement?

This is all the more important as Pakistan’s relations with two of the protagonists in this joint production — Saudi Arabia and China — are deep and strategic, and while Iran is a neighbour, Pakistan has been unable to fully develop bilateral ties with Tehran for fear of running afoul of the Saudis and Americans.

But before we discuss the obstacles standing in the way of better relations, and the possibilities a Saudi-Iranian peace deal brings, let us briefly examine the impact of the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry on Pakistan.

Many have theorised, somewhat simplistically, that Pakistan is a mere battlefield in the Saudi-Iranian sectarian proxy war. This is only partially true because, as argued above, the Saudi-Iran rivalry is mostly geopolitical, though there is no escaping the sectarian angle, and what happens in the Middle East has a definite impact on this country.

But why is Pakistan particularly influenced by the Saudi-Iran rivalry more so than, say, Indonesia or Mali?


Perhaps the answer lies in demographics, ideology and geography. Because Saudi Arabia hosts Islam’s two holiest cities in the Hejaz, there is an emotional and spiritual attachment most Pakistanis have for the kingdom. This is why any criticism of the Saudi state is construed as criticism of the custodians of the holy places, even though there are doctrinal differences between the schools of thought followed in the kingdom and in Pakistan.

Though both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are Sunni-majority states, the majority in the kingdom adheres to the Hanbali/Salafi and Shafi’i schools, whereas most Pakistani Sunnis adhere to the Deobandi and Barelvi sub-sects of the Hanafi school.

On the other hand, Pakistan has one of the biggest Shia Isna Ashari populations in the world, who share the official school of thought of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is why, though many Pakistani Shias may not subscribe to the theory of wilayat-i-faqih (the foundational ideology of revolutionary Iran as espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini) and may not follow Ayatollah Khamenei as their marja-i-taqleed [object of emulation], Iran is still seen as a ‘defender’ of Shias and Shia causes.

Considering the above-mentioned reasons, political developments in both states resonate with Pakistanis of different persuasions. For example, when the National Assembly passed a resolution against participating in the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen targeting the Houthis (who are Zaydi Shias) in 2015, the reaction from religious parties was entirely negative. Worthies attending a ‘Difa-i-Harmain’ conference in Islamabad urged the state to send troops to defend Saudi Arabia and protect it from real or imagined Houthi threats.

Similarly, when the US assassinated senior Iranian military commander Gen Qassem Soleimani in a 2020 drone strike in Iraq, a massive procession of men, women and children marched up to the US consulate in Karachi to condemn the killing. The general was seen as a mudafi-i-haram [defender of the sacred], leading the effort to protect the holy places in Iraq and Syria from the self-styled Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

Considering the influence Saudi Arabia and Iran command on Pakistan’s Sunni and Shia communities, the rapprochement between the two regional powers could have a calming effect on communal relations in the country. At least, it is hoped that peace across the Gulf would take the wind out of the sails of murderous sectarian groups that up till very recently operated with relative ease in this country.


Apart from matters of faith, Pakistan can also stand to gain economically if the Saudi-Iran détente develops further.

One of the major projects that could benefit is the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. While Iran has built its portion of the pipeline, Pakistan has yet to do the needful and, unless the pipeline is built by next year, this country faces a hefty $18 billion penalty.

Work has been stalled on our side apparently out of fear of angering the Saudis, and attracting American sanctions. As far as the Saudis are concerned, Pakistan should be able to convince them, now that Riyadh is itself talking about improving commercial ties with Iran.

As for American sanctions, Pakistan must make a robust case that, if other states in the region (read India) can trade with a sanctioned Russia, Pakistan must be free to trade with Iran. Pakistan is hungry for affordable hydrocarbons and, if the price is right, Iranian gas could help address crippling shortages that have already begun to hit the domestic consumer.

Another project that can be pursued is the Gwadar oil refinery that the Saudis have expressed interest in. Though the Iranians may be wary of a Saudi facility within a hundred kilometres of their border with Pakistan, in the changed geopolitical circumstances, Islamabad can make the case that there is no threat to Tehran from the project. Moreover, China will be eager to link up its trade and energy corridors — the new Silk Roads — with the Gulf, and Pakistan, thanks to its geography, can play a vital role in these linkages.

But for Pakistan to reap the fruits of Saudi-Iranian détente and Chinese commercial ambitions, it must address its internal discord and ensure that all pillars of the state — the treasury, the opposition and the establishment — are on one page where pursuing proactive geo-economic and geopolitical relations in the region are concerned.

Major foreign policy initiatives should not change with changes in government, while this country’s rulers must resist foreign pressure and work to keep Pakistan’s interests first.


The Saudi-Iran peace deal holds tremendous potential for both states, the larger Middle East, as well as the greater Eurasian region. However, decades of hostility between Riyadh and Tehran is unlikely to disappear overnight. The peace process will be slow but steady should China maintain its efforts to keep both parties on board.

Yet, there will be spoilers aplenty. For example, the US is definitely not pleased and has been publicly sulking and raising doubts about China’s role in bringing the cross-Gulf rivals together. Israel is also quite unhappy about the developments in the region. The Saudi-Iran peace deal has, for the time being, scuttled Israeli efforts to coax the Arabs into encircling and, one day, attacking Iran.

Knowing Tel Aviv’s expertise in and propensity for cloak and dagger games, it would not be wrong to suggest that Israel will try its best to sabotage the deal signed in Beijing. This is something both the Saudis and Iranians must be wary of.

However, should normalisation proceed apace, it will bring peace to a shattered, war-scarred region. Yemen, for example, which has been devastated by years of war, may begin the journey of recovery. Saudi officials have already met representatives of the Houthis, and hopefully a permanent ceasefire and peace plan involving all Yemeni factions can materialise soon, with the blessings of Riyadh and Tehran.

Iraq and Syria are also states that have been devastated by Western-led wars of occupation and regime change operations, respectively, while also being theatres of Saudi-Iran hostility. The Syrian foreign minister was recently in Jeddah, which indicates that the rehabilitation of Damascus within the Arab fold has begun, while Iraq reportedly played a central part in hosting Saudi-Iranian talks before the breakthrough in Beijing. Lebanon and Bahrain can also benefit if Saudi Arabia and Iran highlight the message of intra-Muslim unity.

Ever since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East has been wracked by colonial intrigue, internecine power struggles and a near-constant lack of stability. After a century or so of instability, the region now has a chance to exorcise the ghosts of the past and work for a common, prosperous future.

This will not be easy, since major questions — such as that of the freedom of Palestine — remain unresolved. But perhaps the Saudi-Iran détente, with a little help from their Chinese friends, can be the harbinger of better things to come for the region, and for the Eurasian region in general.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 23rd, 2023

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