The Iran-Saudi standoff and the future of the Middle East peace process

Russia is fast emerging as a major power broker in the Middle East.

The world reeled from shock after two successive missile attacks targeted the Abqaiq oil facility and the Khurais oilfield in the Saudi desert last month. The real drama unfolded the morning after – thick smoke billowed from the wreckage, blotting out the early morning sun, and with it perhaps any hopes of restoring some amount of normality to Iranian-Saudi relations, at least for the foreseeable future. Over half of all the crude oil excavated in the Saudi kingdom is processed at Abqaiq. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that crude oil prices surged by 20 percent as global markets grappled with the biggest oil supply shock in decades. The Kingdom’s oil production is already running a historic low as its natural reserves face depletion, and the attacks at Abqaiq and Khurais managed to cut down global oil supply by a further 6 percent. Saudi Arabia called the September 14 attacks an act of war, and Iran stands accused of masterminding the offensive, a charge it vehemently denies. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned what he called Saudi attempts to provoke Iran into a full-blown military confrontation. The country remains economically besieged; heavily sanctioned by the US, with inflation in the country hitting new highs every week under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy. Zarif holds the Houthi rebels responsible for the attack, based on a statement released by the rebel faction in Yemen. Nonetheless, Tehran has not been able to produce any concrete evidence apropos of the claim. The Saudis, meanwhile, have alleged Iranian involvement after examining misfired missiles that they claim were sourced from Iran. Less than a month after the attacks on the Aramco facilities, an Iranian oil tanker, the Sabiti, was attacked while cruising the Red Sea, just off the coast of Jeddah, causing oil prices in London to surge to 60 US dollars a barrel.

Tensions between the two states have been mounting steadily since the past couple months as growing uncertainty around the supply of Middle East oil sends shockwaves around international stock markets. As Saudi Arabia looks to reinforce its defence systems and heighten security around its oil fields and processing facilities, Iran looks to the US to lift sanctions to ease the economic crisis that continues to grip the country. The brouhaha that followed in the wake of the attacks raises important questions about the roadmap to peace in the Middle East. The attacks came at a time when a keen-to-disengage-US looks to withdraw its troops from the Middle East region, increasingly disinclined under President Trump to micromanage the messy politics of the Middle East.

Pundits remain divided as to whether the pull-out is inadvisable or long overdue, but if one thing is certain, it is that the American policy of disengagement is sure to have ripple effects that will be felt across the region – as we have seen happen with the military withdrawal from Syria and the ensuing crisis with the Kurds. Trump, for his part, is only staying true to his 2016 campaign promise of preventing an “endless war” in the Middle East, as stationing troops in the area is both expensive and incurs unmitigated resentment from citizens and Middle Eastern governments alike. The caveat here, of course, is that the vacuum left by the United States as it abandons its imperialist ambitions in the region frees the territory for powerbrokers closer to home to further their agenda – countries that see themselves as obvious arbiters for both the situation in Syria and beyond. 

Russia is fast emerging as a major power broker in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Riyadh earlier this month marked the Russian premier’s first trip to the kingdom in the last 12 years, in a show of renewed Russian geopolitical interest in the region. Meanwhile, Turkey has taken control of the border corridor with Syria, flushing out the Kurds who inhabit the area. A new Great Game is being played out in the Middle East, which is perhaps not so new given the historic power struggle between Russia and the western faction to control Asian territory.

And where does this leave Pakistan?

Diplomatic efforts led by Imran Khan have been characterized by a charm offensive, particularly after successfully hosting Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman at Islamabad earlier this year and securing Saudi investment in the country, followed by the more recent and widely lauded UNGA address in New York. Khan has also managed to cultivate closer ties with the Turkish and Malaysian premiers Erdogan and Mahathir Muhammad, in a possible overture to pan-Islamic solidarity, a cause Pakistan has historically seen itself as holding the mantle of. Now he walks a diplomatic tightrope as he tries to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh – meeting with the Saudi king on Tuesday, October 8th, and concluding his week by touching down in Tehran on the weekend. 

A Saudi-Iran war would calamitous for many reasons, but Pakistan’s attempt at facilitating dialogue between the two countries makes sense in light of its own national interest. Iran is a neighbouring country that Pakistan has generally maintained amicable relations with, not to mention the fact that Pakistan is home to a sizeable Shi’a population. The Saudi kingdom is a major investor in Pakistani industry, and foreign remittances from Pakistani workers in Saudi form an integral part of the country’s GDP, making the Kingdom an ally that Pakistan cannot afford to lose. The present government is working overtime to build business confidence and attract investment into the country. Unrest and armed conflict proves disastrous for the economy, a lesson we are all too familiar with. Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have never been able to recover from the setback to their economies, and Lebanon is struggling to remedy its financial crisis that is sparking popular protests in the capital.

However, all may not be lost. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the resignation of Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, made the news. Reports coming out of Washington suggest that Bolton, infamous for being a key proponent of the Iraq war, clashed with the President often on foreign policy matters. With Washington’s most well-known war hawk out of the picture, military intervention in the Middle East will, in all likelihood, take a backseat to diplomatic efforts at the negotiating table.

Mahnoor Khan is an undergraduate student of Social Development and Policy at Habib University. Her research interests include political science, cultural anthropology and international relations.


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Filed under Discussion, Iran, Pakistan, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East, United States, Yemen

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