Iranian–Saudi normalization one year on: Tactical accommodation or strategic partnership?

By Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni - 28 March 2024
Iranian–Saudi normalization one year on: Tactical accommodation or strategic partnership?

Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni argue that there is a stark disconnect between diplomatic gestures and tangible outcomes between Tehran and Riyadh. This stagnation raises doubts about the feasibility of deeper cooperation in areas as complex and sensitive as military and defense relations.

March 10 marked the first anniversary of the normalization of ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an agreement facilitated by China. Although a marked de-escalation of tensions between the regional rivals has taken place, a sober assessment suggests that the reconciliation has not made fundamental progress.

Throughout this period, a series of significant diplomatic activities have unfolded between the two states long seen as perennial regional foes. The two resumed diplomatic relations and re-established their embassies in each other’s capital city, and in early February, Tehran announced visa-free travel for nationals of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. Notably, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi made an official visit to Riyadh in November 2023 to participate in an extraordinary session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the war in Gaza. In addition, there have been engagements between the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, including several meetings and telephone conversations over the last twelve months. While Iran has extended an invitation to Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammad Bin Salman to visit Tehran, such a visit is not scheduled in the immediate future.

Also, in another significant area for bilateral ties, namely pilgrimages to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia, there has been stagnation rather than progress. For instance, it was reported that due to “technical problems” Iranian citizens cannot participate in the Umrah in Saudi Arabia at least in the near future. The Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims. Unlike the Hajj, which is performed on specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar, the Umrah can be undertaken at any time of the year.

Moreover, bilateral discussions about military cooperation took place, which some observers hailed as quite significant in themselves. In mid-February 2024, Saudi Ambassador to Tehran, Abdullah bin Saud al-Anzi, visited Iran's Defense Ministry for a meeting with Minister Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani. During the meeting, they emphasized the importance of expanding cooperation between the two countries in military and defense aspects. A week before, an Iranian high-ranking military delegation took part in the World Defense Exhibition in Riyadh (Feb. 4–8), a biennial defense and security exhibition organized by the Saudi General Authority for Military Industries. The Iranian delegation also held talks with the Saudi Chief of Staff. Earlier, on Nov. 30, 2023, Major-General Mohammad-Hossein Bagheri, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, held a telephone conversation with Saudi Minister of Defense, Khalid bin Salman Al-Saud. However, nothing concrete has materialized from these pledges of pursuing military cooperation. 

Meanwhile, economic cooperation between the two sides has been virtually non-existent. Nearly a year after Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to normalize their relationship, a February 2024 economic report showed that from March 2023 to January 2024, the value of Saudi Arabia's exports to Iran remains at “zero,” while Iran's exports to that country have been worth only $361,000.

From zero trade to military cooperation?

The normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tehran has been hailed as a pivotal moment with the potential to redefine, if not revolutionize, the political and security landscape of the Middle East. However, a year on from the landmark March 2023 agreement, the promises of transformation have largely remained on paper, with tangible results in both the regional and bilateral aspects of the agreement still elusive. Notably, areas such as trade enhancement and agreements on religious pilgrimage like the Umrah, which could have served as immediate and visible signs of the thawing relationship and as crucial trust-building measures, have seen no significant progress. This stagnation raises doubts about the feasibility of deeper cooperation in areas as complex and sensitive as military and defense relations, even from a mid-term perspective.

This agreement has unfolded on two distinct fronts. On one level, bilateral meetings and phone calls between Iranian and Saudi officials have been characterized by exchanges of positive rhetoric, suggesting a mutual desire to mend ties. Yet, on the ground, this diplomatic warmth has not translated into substantive actions or initiatives to tackle the myriad regional challenges both countries face. It is even hard to say that it was the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that reduced tension in Yemen as Riyadh had already decided to make a shift in its policies toward Yemen.

The disconnect between diplomatic gestures and tangible outcomes highlights the complexities of Iranian–Saudi relations. While diplomatic normalization has opened channels of communication, leveraging these channels to effect real change in military, defense, and broader regional issues will require more than just positive dialogue. In essence, in the absence of any major geopolitical changes, it is barely conceivable how the former archfoes can transform the normalization inked on paper into a strategic rapprochement if not partnership. 

Tactical successes trump action-based outcomes

The post-2023 relationship between Tehran and Riyadh can be dissected into two distinct categories: tactical successes and action-based outcomes.

First, the tactical successes: In 2023, both Iran and Saudi Arabia found themselves in positions where an agreement was seen as mutually beneficial. Iran had weathered the unprecedented revolutionary protests of 2022 but faced significant hits to its domestic and international legitimacy. On its part, Saudi Arabia was aiming to mitigate tensions with the Houthis in neighboring Yemen while avoiding another series of Iran-led attacks on its vital energy infrastructure (the most destructive of which had occurred with the September 2019 drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s key Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, thereby cutting Saudi oil production by half), amid continuing uncertainties of U.S. support against them. The normalization deal, therefore, served immediate tactical interests, fostering a climate where both states engaged in diplomatic interactions and meetings, symbolizing a commitment to ease tensions and project an image of cooperation.

However, when analyzing the actions and concrete outcomes of this agreement, the scenario appears more complex and less optimistic. Despite the diplomatic thaw, several issues underscore the fragility and tentative nature of this normalization. For instance, economic ties have not seen the expected boost, with trade between the two nations reportedly remaining virtually non-existent. Economic collaboration often signifies the strengthening of bilateral relations, yet, in this case, it remains a missed opportunity.

Furthermore, territorial disputes have surfaced as points of contention. The Arash Gas Field in the Persian Gulf has become a bone of contention, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia challenging Iran's claims, which is reflective of unresolved territorial issues that could escalate tensions in the future. Additionally, Riyadh's support for the UAE's claim over three Iranian islands underscores persistent geopolitical rifts between the two sides of the Gulf.

These issues are crucial as they challenge the narrative that the Iranian–Saudi agreement is a strategic milestone that could reshape, if not revolutionize, Middle Eastern geopolitics. For instance, the failure to form a united front in the Muslim-majority world in the context of the war in Gaza indicates that the deal has not transcended its tactical utility to foster a strategic regional initiative. Iran's insistence on a “resistance” model post-October 7 and Saudi Arabia's continued intention to normalize ties with Israel highlight divergent strategic visions that could strain this nascent détente.

In summary, while the normalization between Tehran and Riyadh marked a significant diplomatic moment, its long-term impact and transition from tactical accommodation to strategic partnership remains uncertain. The persistence of territorial disputes, economic non-engagement, and differing regional strategies underscore the complexities in transitioning from a tactical agreement to a robust, action-oriented relationship. Should the global or regional political landscape shift, notably with potential changes in the U.S. administration, the dynamics of this Iranian–Saudi relationship could face new tests, influencing future interactions and regional policies between the two.



Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Founder & Director, Center for Middle East and Global Order (CMEG) • Author, The Islamic Republic in Existential Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift in the EU’s Iran Policy (2023, EUISS Chaillot Paper) & much-acclaimed Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani (2021) & The Islamic Republic of Iran Four Decades On: The 2017/18 Protests Amid a Triple Crisis (2020, Brookings) • 2022 McCloy Fellow on Global Trends, American Council on Germany (ACG) • Fmr. Iran expert, American University of Beirut (AUB) & Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) & German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) • Ph.D. in International Relations, Dep. of Development Studies, SOAS (U of London) & Post-Doc, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center • Website InstagramXFacebookLinkedIn

Amin Naeni is a Ph.D. candidate and Research Assistant at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) at Deakin University in Australia, and a Fellow at the Center for Middle East and Global Order (CMEG).

Photo by cottonbro studio

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