The policies pursued in the aftermath of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-led Iranian revolution stoked sectarian hatred in the region but they have been discarded in line with the changed geo-political realities
Iran and Saudi Arabia have signed a pact for resuming diplomatic ties while affirming respect for each other’s sovereignty and pledging non-interference in internal affairs. China brokered the agreement after four-day secret talks in Beijing in March 2023 between Saudi Arabian national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani.
The two sides agreed to re-activate earlier pacts on security cooperation and investment trade, and the economy as part of the breakthrough, which has raised hopes for a more secure and stable Middle East and for an end to conflicts their rivalry fuelled.
The fresh Saudi-Iran pact is also likely to boost Tehran’s efforts to counter American attempts to isolate it and also help revive its 2015 nuclear agreement with global powers.
Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Iran when its embassy in Tehran was stormed over the execution of a Shia Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia in 2016. The relations worsened after the Saudis blamed Iran for attacks on its oil facilities in 2019.
The conflict in Yemen has been a major source of friction between the two countries. Saudi Arabia has headed a coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Houthis have also been blamed for attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have backed opposite sides in wars in Yemen and Syria. The de-escalation of the hostilities between them is likely to help end the war in Yemen.
With the signing of the Saudi-Iran pact, Tehran is now expected to push the Houthis to sign a peace deal with the Saudis and help them come out of the quagmire they have sunk into in Yemen.
Houthis have been among those who have welcomed the resumption of ties between Saudis and Iranians and the Saudi-Iran pact for the purpose is importantly an important marker of the eclipsing sectarianism in the Middle East.
The factors that once gave rise to sectarianism in the region have been fading away. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has accordingly sought to shift away from the policies pursued in the aftermath of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-led Iranian revolution.
The policies stoked sectarian hatred in the region. But they have been discarded in line with the changed geo-political realities and for the stability needed for Salman’s aggressive liberalization drive to succeed.
The drive is part of Salman’s vision for diversifying the Saudi economy for a post-petroleum future. Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, has set a target for transforming his country from just an exporter of oil into an important pillar of global progress.
The Saudi-Iran pact is an important step towards realizing this goal, which cannot be achieved without peace and stability in the Middle East.
The 2020 Saudi announcement for an end to the assistance offered to mosques globally that proliferated as part of attempts to check the Iranian revolutionary influence was an important step towards checking destabilizing sectarianism.
The Saudis have also sought to curb sectarian rhetoric that became common in the region after 1979. The sectarian pushback has been ebbing since the late 1980s when it became clear that the fears of the Iranian revolution’s export were exaggerated. The Arab Shia leaders emboldened by Khomeini’s success, too, understood their inability to replicate it.
As early as 1993, Saudi King Fahd met some Shia dissidents and promised to improve their lot. He extended an olive branch and announced measures to placate the Shias including the removal of derogatory references to them in textbooks.
Fahad allowed Saudi Shias in exile to return home. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq accelerated Saudi attempts to reach out to the Shias.
A Shia delegation met Crown Prince Abdullah, who called for a better Shia-Sunni understanding after Saddam’s fall in 2003. They presented him with a petition for equal rights titled ‘Partners in the Nation.’
Abdullah invited prominent Shias to national dialogue to discuss ways to combat religious extremism. Shias turned out to vote in large numbers when elections were held for the Qatif council in the Shia-majority and oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Hasan al-Saffar, a Shia dissident who returned to Saudi Arabia after 15 years in exile, was among those who urged Shia participation in the voting. Many Shias were elected to the council, which gave them a platform to voice their concerns.
The Saudi government allowed the publication of 40 works on Shia family law in 2005 after Abdullah became the king. The works included those by al-Saffar, who headed a transnational Shia network in Saudi Arabia and in 1979 led an uprising against the kingdom.
As part of the reconciliation, Saudi Shias were also allowed to build a bigger place to commemorate Imam Hussain, the third Shia Imam, and for catering to Shia pilgrims in Medina.
The measures helped in the confidence building needed to counter the damage the fanning of state-sponsored sectarianism to prevent Iran from exporting Khomeini’s revolution caused.
Pan-Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood congratulated Khomeini and saw him as an inspiration triggering fears among Arab monarchies that they could be next.
The monarchies responded by promoting conspiracy theories that linked Iranian Shias, particularly to a Persian conspiracy to revive their ancient empire. Saddam, who helmed Iraq’s Sunni-dominated government and feared the country’s Shia majority may try and replicate the Iranian revolution, jumped on the bandwagon.
The sectarian ideas gained traction when the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s polarised the region. Over the years, the anti-Iran and anti-Shia rhetoric was weaponised drawing on the 16th-century Safavid Dynasty’s legacy of converting Iran into a Shia state.
The Iranian influence was also sought to be countered by exporting Saudi Arabia’s official Salafism through a proliferation of televangelists and TV channels. The fall of Saddam, who kept blatant sectarianism in check, and the American reliance on the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter a broad-based challenge to its occupation escalated the sectarian rift.
Over the next decade, the futility of the fratricidal conflict began to dawn as nihilistic ISIS overran swathes of the region. Iraq’s first non-sectarian election since 2003 in May 2018 contributed to the eclipse of sectarianism. The public denominational discourse post ISIS’s defeat was markedly absent in the election in contrast to previous polls.
Most political blocs canvassed with cross-sectarian slogans. The need to eschew sectarianism and revenge to stabilise Iraq was the crux of electioneering.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has reinvented himself and backed inclusion and equitable treatment of all Iraqis, led an alliance with Sunnis and communists in May 2018 national election.
The coalition went on to win the highest number of seats. An Iran-backed block finished second in Parliament. Kurdish politician Barham Salih was elected as president, Sunni lawmaker Muhammad al-Halbusi the speaker, and Shia politician Abdul al-Mahdi, as the prime minister.
A regional rapprochement process that helped neutralise sectarianism made the broad-based Iraqi government in 2018 possible. Sadr visited Saudi Arabia in 2017 as part of the process.
Salman hosted Sadr whose visit to Riyadh was seen as part of his attempts to boost his credentials as a nationalist Arab figure willing to rise above sectarian politics. It was among a series of high-profile exchanges between the two countries amid improving ties since 2016.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Baghdad in February 2017. Abadi and his interior minister Qassim al-Araji toured Saudi Arabia in June and July of that year. The following year in March, an Iraq-Saudi football match was held in Iraq’s Basra.
It hence was no surprise when it emerged that the Saudi-Iran pact was in the works for two years through intermediaries including Iraq before China entered the picture later and supervised the final agreement sidelining Americans.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide