Free Will Trumps Determinism in the Gulf

The Gulf states are tapping the “feel-good” generated by the Saudi-Iranian deal amid signs of an overall easing of tensions, except in Washington, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or MbS, June 2019. (Kremlin)

By M.K. Bhadrakumar
Peoples Dispatch

China’s mediation to normalize Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties has been widely welcomed internationally, especially in the West Asian  (Middle East) region.

A clutch of unhappy states that do not want to see China stealing a march on any front, even if it advances the cause of world peace, mutely watched.

The U.S. led this pack of dead souls. But the U.S. is also on the horns of a dilemma. Can it afford to be a spoiler?

Saudi Arabia is not only the fountainhead of petrodollar recycling— and, therefore, a pillar of the Western banking system — but also America’s No. 1 market for arms exports.

Europe is facing energy crisis and the stability of the oil market is an overriding concern.

Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable maturity to maintain that its “Look East” policy and the strategic partnership with China do not mean it is dumping the Americans. Saudis are treading softly.

After all, Jamal Khashoggi was a strategic asset of the U.S. security establishment; the U.S. is a stakeholder in the Saudi succession and it has a consistent record of sponsoring regime changes to create pliable regimes.

U.S. President Barack Obama at far left, with Jamal Khashoggi to his left, during a June 4, 2009, roundtable. (The White House, Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, the fact remains that the Saudi-Iranian deal drives a knife into the heart of the U.S.’ West Asian strategy. The deal leaves the U.S. and Israel badly isolated. The Israel lobby may show its unhappiness during President Joe Biden’s bid for another term.

China has stolen a march on the U.S. with far-reaching consequences, which signifies a foreign policy disaster for Biden.

Washington has not spoken the last word and may be plotting to push back the peace process from becoming mainstream politics of the West Asian region. The American commentators are visualizing that the Saudi-Iranian normalization will be a long haul and the odds are heavily stacked against it.

Firewalls Around New Spirit of Reconciliation

 Iran, in green; Saudi Arabia, in orange. (Turkish Flame, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

However, the regional protagonists are already creating firewalls locally to preserve and foster the new spirit of reconciliation. Of course, China (and Russia), too, lend a helping hand. China has mooted the idea of a regional summit between Iran and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council by the end of this year.

An unnamed Saudi official told the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat that Chinese President Xi Jinping approached Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and prime minister, last year about Beijing serving as a ‘bridge’ between the kingdom and Iran and the latter welcomed it, as Riyadh sees Beijing being in a “unique” position to wield unmatched “leverage” in the Gulf.

“For Iran in particular, China is either No. 1 or No. 2 in terms of its international partners. And so the leverage is important in that regard, and you cannot have an alternative that is equal in importance,” the Saudi official added.

The Saudi official said China’s role makes it more likely that the terms of the deal will hold. “It (China) is a major stakeholder in the security and stability of the Gulf,” he noted.

The official also revealed that the talks in Beijing involved “five very extensive” sessions on thorny issues. The most difficult topics were related to Yemen, the media, and China’s role, the official said.

Meanwhile, there are positive tidings in the air too — the likelihood of  a foreign minister-level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the near future and, more importantly, the reported letter of invitation from King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Iranian President Ebrahim Raeisi to visit Riyadh.

Seyyed Ibrahim Ra’isi casting his ballot as presidential candidate in June 2021. (Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian remarked on Sunday with reference to the Yemeni crisis that “We [Iran] are working with Saudi Arabia on ensuring the stability of the region. We will not accept any threat against us from neighbouring countries.”

To be sure, the regional environment is improving. Signs of an overall easing of tensions have appeared.

For the first visit of its kind in over a decade, the Turkish foreign minister was in Cairo and the Egyptian foreign minister has been to Turkey and Syria. In mid-March, on return from Beijing, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, headed for the U.A.E. where President Sheikh Mohamed received him.

Soon after that, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in the U.A.E. on an official visit. “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings,” Sheikh Mohamed told Assad during their historic meeting at the presidential palace.

In an interview with NourNews, Shamkhani described his five days’ talks in Beijing leading to the deal with Saudi Arabia as “frank, transparent, comprehensive and constructive.”

He said:

“Clearing misunderstandings and looking to the future in Tehran-Riyadh relations will definitely lead to the development of regional stability and security and the increase of cooperation between the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Islamic world to manage the existing challenges.”

Evidently, the regional states are tapping the “feel-good” generated by the Saudi-Iranian understanding. Contrary to the Western propaganda of an estrangement lately between Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., Sheikh Mohammed is identifying closely with the positive trends in the regional environment.

This is where China’s overarching role fostering dialogue and amity becomes decisive. The regional countries regard China as a benign interlocutor and the concerted attempts by the U.S. and its junior partners to run down China make no impact on the regional states.

China’s President Xi Jinping with Iran’s Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei, in 2016. (, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

China has immense economic interests in the region — especially, expansion of the Silk Road in West Asia. The region’s political stability and security, therefore, is of vital interest to Beijing and prompts it to become the sponsor and guarantor of the Saudi-Iranian agreement.

Clearly, the durability of the Saudi-Iranian deal should not be underestimated. The Saudi-Iranian agreement will remain West Asia’s most important development for a long time.

Fundamentally, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have compulsions to shift the locus of their national strategies to development and economic growth. This has received scant attention.

The Western media has deliberately ignored this and instead demonized the Saudi crown prince and created a doomsday scenario for Iran’s Islamic regime.

That said, the known unknown is the tension building up over Iran’s nuclear program. The issue is among the most prominent points of contention between Tehran and the kingdom.

Also, Israeli threats of attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities are escalating. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Pentagon press briefing in 2021. (DoD, Jack Sanders)

A Russian-Chinese coordinated effort is needed to forestall the U.S. from raking up the nuclear issue in tandem with Israel and ratcheting up tensions, including military tensions, in such a way that a pretext becomes available to destabilize the region and marginalize the Saudi-Iran agreement as the leitmotif of regional politics.

All parties understand only too well that, “If the Beijing agreement materializes, the violent and fanatical right-wing Israeli government will be the first to lose out, as … the agreement would give rise to a stable and prosperous regional system that sets the course for further normalizations and all the achievements that ensue from them,” as a Lebanese columnist wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

On balance, the regional states are acting on free will, increasingly and eschewing their determinism that was wedded to decisions and actions that were thought to be causally inevitable.

The realization has dawned now that it is within the capacity of sovereign states to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe.

This article originally appeared on Indian Punchline.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. His views are his own. He blogs at Indian Punchline.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

6 comments for “Free Will Trumps Determinism in the Gulf

  1. Randal Marlin
    April 13, 2023 at 17:51

    The news of the rapprochement has me gobsmacked. What do you think when what is not supposed to happen, happens?
    What I worry about, playing with words, is whether the Gulf will determine Trump’s free will to exploit the development. Otherwise, I would hope the move might help prospects for peace in the world. Instead of MAGA, MAWA. Make America Wise Again. End the unipolar exceptionalism of PNAC and its fallout. But the forces of militarism are strong.

    • vinnieoh
      April 14, 2023 at 17:13

      Searching memory banks for a time when US was wise. Still searching… you can continue with your other tasks while this search continues. Still searching…

      • Randal Marlin
        April 15, 2023 at 16:16

        The U.S. was wise when it funded UN agencies like ICAO. The thinking was that decolonization was going to happen, that developing nations would want their own airlines. So better provide them with technical assistance so they could manage good airport control and agreed-upon rules for flight paths and the like. World-wide safe air travel was the aim, not U.S. hegemony. The location of ICAO in Montreal, rather than New York, was a deliberate way signalling this. My father, E.R. “Spike” Marlin was with the organization from the beginning, so I know about this thinking, and I believe it to have been wise.

  2. Jeff Harrison
    April 13, 2023 at 16:10

    I can only say that I sure as hell hope you’re right. The need for a neutral mediator has been evident for a very long time. That would exclude the US and all the other members of “The West”.

  3. vinnieoh
    April 13, 2023 at 15:51

    This makes me cautiously optimistic. Until now I had believed that the various ME states would continue to let themselves be channeled into internecine conflict by the Great Game Players of the West.

    A qualifying thought moment though; China’s greatest asset in this venture at the moment is that IT IS NOT THE US. After centuries of abuse at the hands of outsiders, no-one in the ME should mistake others’ interest in their affairs as altruistic or completely absent of selfish considerations. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as all reasonable interests are declared up front, and rewards, as well as risks, accrue to all.

  4. April 13, 2023 at 15:42

    The situation is certainly positive but it’s hard to discount the probability that Israel, this time at the behest of the Biden administration, will not somehow sabotage any meaningful, long-term rapprochement. I certainly hope I’m wrong.

Comments are closed.