Saudi Arabia looks to Oman as an ally for rapprochement with Iran

The Saudi foreign minister has travelled to Oman to strengthen relations with the Sultanate with a view to a future understanding with Iran
El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Arabia Saudí, el príncipe Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores de Rusia via REUTERS

Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores de Rusia via REUTERS  -   Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud

Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan held a bilateral meeting with Oman's Deputy Prime Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, on Tuesday. The summit served to strengthen relations between the Sultanate and the Kingdom and, above all, to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran closer together amid speculation about a possible cooling of tensions. 

The bilateral summit resulted in the sharing of objectives between the two states. The two sides discussed recent developments in "regional and international events and common concerns" and strengthened their ties. At the end of the meeting, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud sent an express invitation to Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq to visit the Kingdom in the coming weeks.  

El rey saudí, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) se reúne con el viceprimer ministro de Omán, Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said, antes de la 40ª sesión del Consejo Supremo del Consejo de Cooperación del Golfo (CCG) PHOTO/ Agencia de prensa saudí
PHOTO/ Saudi Press Agency-Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) meets with Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said ahead of the 40th session of the Supreme Council of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In the past two weeks, Oman has witnessed first-hand the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia through visits to the country by its foreign representatives. The Sultanate maintains strong bilateral relations with both states, a position that allows it to act as a moderator in the sort of Cold War that has been raging in the region for several decades. 

Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said himself, who is in charge of receiving the Saudi prince in Muscat, played the role of host last week when he welcomed the Iranian foreign policy chief, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Also present at the summit with the Persian representative was his Omani counterpart, Sayyid Badr Hamad al-Busaidi. Both sides stressed the importance of resolving regional disputes "through peaceful means and dialogue", in a clear reference to Yemen. 

El  ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Irán, Mohammad Javad Zarif AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE-Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Along with Oman, Qatar is another of the actors involved in the mediation efforts between Riyadh and Tehran. Although it has been in a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia since 2017, the Al-Ula summit held last January laid the foundations for a new understanding between the Emirate and the rest of the Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, Javad Zarif himself is seeking to deepen the Islamic Republic's relations with these countries. Proof of this is the diplomatic tour of several states in the region that he has undertaken in recent weeks, concluding with a visit to the capitals of Muscat and Doha. Saudi Arabia, represented by Prince Faisal bin Farhan, is seeking to do the same.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are seeking to impose their conditions for a future peace agreement, and for this they need the majority backing of their regional allies. A priori, Riyadh has an advantage because of its ties with Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, among others. On the Iranian side of the balance are Syria, an as yet undetermined Iraq and, despite the Al-Ula summit, Qatar.

El príncipe heredero de Arabia Saudí, Mohammed bin Salman REUTERS/MANDEL NGAN
REUTERS/MANDEL NGAN-Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia and Iran, rumours of understanding

Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, in 2018 compared Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's plans in the Middle East to those once deployed by Adolf Hitler in Europe. This is a far cry from what MBS himself said in an interview broadcast just a week ago: "Iran is a neighbouring country. All we ask is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We don't want the situation with Iran to be difficult'. 

MBS opened the door to a normalisation of relations, but demanded that the Iranian regime do its part. "Our problem is Iran's negative behaviour, from its nuclear programme, to its support for outlawed militias in the region, to its launching of ballistic missiles," he said. But the crown prince conveyed his optimism for "building a good and positive relationship with Iran that benefits all parties".

El líder supremo de Irán, el ayatolá Alí Jamenei AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR
AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR-Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Tehran has welcomed Saudi Arabia's change of tone. "With negotiations and a constructive outlook, the two important countries of the region and the Islamic world can leave their differences behind and enter a new phase of cooperation and tolerance to bring stability and peace in the region," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

The origins of the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh date back to 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution. In addition to ushering in a multipolar geopolitical landscape, Ayatollah Khomeini sought to export the format of his rebellion to other countries in the region, a factor that sparked insecurity in the House of Al-Saud. From that moment on, a struggle between the two states for dominance in the Middle East began. 

combatiente de las fuerzas leales al gobierno de Yemen respaldado por Arabia Saudí mantiene una posición contra los rebeldes hutíes en la provincia nororiental de Marib, el 16 de abril de 2021 PHOTO/AFP
PHOTO/AFP-Saudi-backed Yemeni government loyalist fighter holds a position against Houthi rebels in the northeastern province of Marib, 16 April 2021.

The fighting, however, has not taken place within their respective borders, but has been relocated to third countries. Yemen is the best example of this. Ending the war in the country is one of the main consequences of a possible understanding between Riyadh and Tehran. For the moment, the US and Saudi delegation is negotiating with the Iranian-backed Houthis for a ceasefire that would allow Yemen to catch its breath after years of devastation.