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EDITORIAL: Things seem to be changing pretty fast in the Middle East. First the United Arab Emirates (UAE) led a number of Arab countries in a surprising move to normalise ties with Israel, even though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) hasn’t yet done so, then Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavyweights moved very quickly and surprisingly to repair ties with Qatar, and now there are signs that Riyadh and Tehran are also trying to bury the hatchet and bring peace to the region as well as the wider Muslim world. The two have stakes on opposing sides in a number of regional conflicts, like Syria and Yemen, not to mention how they have encouraged and funded different factions and militias in a number of Muslim countries outside the region, ours being no exception. So anything that can bring them together will surely be greeted far and wide.

Riyadh has denied any such talks so far, while Iran is keeping silent, but the Financial Times reported that the two have indeed been talking in Baghdad since at least early this month; something that the government of Iraq has not denied so far. The negotiations have apparently been brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, most likely to keep his country from becoming yet another proxy battlefield between the two regional rivals than anything else, and it seems they are waiting to make some definitive advances before taking the whole thing to the press. Surely, it is no coincidence that this attempt at a thaw has come just when efforts are under way in Vienna to bring the US back to the 2015 nuclear deal and also to persuade Iran to implement nuclear commitments that it had suspended in response to US sanctions.

KSA, which along with Israel cheered the loudest and hardest when former US President Donald Trump pulled the plug on the Iran deal, now realises that the tide has turned in Washington and the Biden White House sees the Middle East through a very different lens. That explains the rush to make up with Qatar and now the initiative to reach out to Iran. If this is true and President Biden is indeed the driving force behind this détente, then there is a very good chance of the Gulf and all countries around it to emerge stronger and more secure by the end of his presidential term. Countries like Pakistan, which are from outside the region yet pretty close to both Iran and KSA, can play a very important and constructive role in this regard. Since Pakistan has always had exemplary ties with Saudi Arabia and shares a very large border with Iran - besides being a major non-Nato US ally - and has also offered to mediate before, its services should also be utilised for the benefit of all parties concerned.

Iran has not just been squeezed by western sanctions but is also pretty much isolated within the region and much of the Muslim world because of its differences with Saudi Arabia. And with oil in serious danger of being stripped of the Black Gold status that made GCC reserves and sovereign wealth funds the envy of the world, Saudi Arabia can also do without the needless hassle that comes with keeping pace with all its proxy battles and mini-wars with Iran in different parts of the world.

Both Riyadh and Tehran need to display the political maturity needed to grasp this rare moment and reach a lasting peace agreement. For that would not amount to just two countries and cultures coming together after a very long time, but rather all Muslim countries being given the opportunity to live without the biggest dividing factor between them. Hopefully, better sense will prevail and the US will, for once, push the Middle East sincerely towards lasting peace rather than unending conflict.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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