On Jan 02, 2016 Saudi Arabia executed 47 prisoners across the kingdom that were found of being associated with al-Qaeda and for carrying out series of attacks across the kingdom in 2003 and 2004. Although among those executed included 43 Sunnis and 4 Shiites but the executions were projected as sectarian conflict by shifting focus to execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Subsequently, a group of demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran’s capital. This led to the severance of diplomatic ties between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic, thus complicating an already tense atmosphere.
The Saudi-Iran rift has roots in historic, economic, linguistic, psychological and cultural differences. Contemporarily, the conflict originates from their concern about possible future position in the Middle Eastern region. There are various factors that contribute to their concern including declining Western interests in the region, rising threat of ISIS, war torn regional states i.e., Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and their possible repercussions on their society, budget deficits faced by Middle Eastern and Gulf states due to changing demand of oil in the market and economic losses confronted by Iran as a result of economic sanctions.
But instead of suggesting workable solution for both the states, the dominant narratives on the Middle East’s regional situation formed on account of several analyses being done worldwide, present Saudi Arabia and Iran as religiously non-identical states vying for regional influence and using religion and sectarian identity as tools to pursue this objective. Such kind of analysis will only contribute negatively to on-going crisis. Relatively the conflict needs to be analysed in view of geopolitical calculations which are not unique to Saudi and Iran but to every state pursuing national interests.
It is a miscalculation to perceive that if Saudis would gain something in the region or would establish bilateral relationship with Western states, it would come at the expense of Iranian interests or the vice versa. Riyadh and Tehran should also prevent the current tensions from taking a hazardous turn on the basis of such misguided perceptions as it would only endanger peace of the entire region. With falling oil prices, any negative development would increase defence expenditures and would draw away resources from the social sectors. Likewise, engaging in any sort of arms race would come at the expense of socio-economic development.
There is no plausible motivation why Saudi Arabia and Iran should confront each other to establish control or create groups or blocs to the detriment of the other. Saudi Arabia is accredited as an important country in terms of its oil resource, political influence and is held in reverence for being the custodian of holy sites. It also has close relations with regional and trans-regional countries. Iran similarly has its own role to play as a part of the region. It has the potential to promote trade with the West, Central Asia, China and Russia. After getting access to its frozen assets of worth $100 billion subsequent to lifting of economic sanctions, Iran’s investment in sectors such as education, information technology, the environment, industry would help in socio-economic development.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia would be net losers in any prolonged confrontation. With these two powers refusing to speak to each other, new alignments would probably take root; in consequence violence is likely to get worse. The conflict in Syria and Yemen can’t be stopped without an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Just as Iran has wisely opened a new chapter with the West, it should similarly review its policies towards its neighbours. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has to reconsider its policy as military intervention would only complicate matters nationally and regionally.
As far as the involvement of other countries in bilateral conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is concerned, adopting neutral stance on the conflict would allow the states to act as a mediator between the two. Taking sides would create competing alliances and the resultant polarisation on conflict would only strengthen the activities of rebel groups as they might exploit the situation to their benefit.
Moreover, it should be noted that in a global world, the tendency to look at the political issues in terms of religious blocs has only increased misinterpretation between Muslim and the rest of the world. Thus, with efforts of organisations like Arab League, Regional Cooperation for Development and Organisation of Islamic Countries, Muslim countries may start looking for transforming into broader, non-denominational forums for mutual progress and promotion of good relations among them and with their neighbours. It would motivate them to become more competitive, effective and productive.
Pakistan has cautiously opted for staying neutral in the Saudi-Iran conflict. Back in 1997, Pakistan achieved success in normalising ties between the two countries. Presently for the reconciliation process to succeed, it is vital to find a common ground of cooperation while putting into consideration Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran and Iran’s concerns about the kingdom. It is also crucial to identify the areas which can be explored for establishing a modicum of trust. Nevertheless the eventual success of the reconciliation process primarily depends on the vision adopted by the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Published by Pakistan Observer on January 25, 2016
Link of the Article: http://pakobserver.net/detailnews.asp?id=286947
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are no necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.