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RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman once compared Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler, but has now green-lit a reconciliation deal intended to usher in a new era of regional prosperity.

As a 29-year-old defence minister, he launched a ferocious assault on Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, but is now pursuing back-channel talks that could ultimately remove Saudi forces from the conflict.

He has also worked to mend bitter rifts with regional rivals like Qatar and Turkey, and even offered up the Gulf kingdom as a possible mediator for the war in Ukraine.

Analysts say it points to an evolution of Prince Mohammed, now 37, from erratic disruptor to pragmatic power player.

The deal with Iran in particular “marks a sea change in his political approach”, signalling “maturity and a more realistic understanding of regional power politics”, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi foreign policy at the University of Birmingham.

Yet it’s too soon to know whether such de-escalatory measures will succeed – and how far they will go.

Saudi, Iranian FMs hold Ramazan call, vow to meet ‘soon’: Riyadh

The Iran deal still needs to be implemented, with embassies due to reopen by the second week of May after seven years of severed bilateral ties.

Saudi Arabia and Syria are also in talks on resuming consular services, state media in the kingdom said Thursday, more than a decade after the Gulf kingdom cut ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Riyadh had long openly championed Assad’s ouster.

Regardless of what happens next, Riyadh’s agenda is clear: minimising turbulence abroad to keep the focus on a raft of economic and social reforms at home.

“Our vision is a prosperous Middle East,” one Saudi official said, “because without your region developing with you, there are limits to what you can achieve.”

‘Vision’ under threat

It was domestic reforms that initially helped burnish Prince Mohammed’s reputation on the world stage.

On his watch, the formerly closed-off kingdom sidelined the notorious religious police, allowed women to drive, opened cinemas and started granting tourist visas.

Its deep-pocketed sovereign wealth fund inked a series of high-profile investments in everything from Newcastle United to Nintendo, hinting at how his “Vision 2030” reform agenda might transition the world’s largest crude exporter away from fossil fuels.

Hanging over all this were concerns about ramped-up repression, especially following the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

But Saudi officials also recognised how security threats, especially from Iran, endangered Prince Mohammed’s big plans.

This point was driven home with attacks in 2019, claimed by the Iran-backed Houthis, on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily halved crude output.

Riyadh and Washington charged that Tehran was behind the operation, which the Iranians denied.

The incident was a game-changer, spurring Saudi Arabia to pursue a more conciliatory path, analysts and diplomats say.

Saudi officials were deeply disappointed by the tepid response of then-US president Donald Trump’s administration, which they believed undermined the oil-for-security trade-off that has underpinned the two countries’ partnership for decades.

“The Saudis were shocked that the Americans did nothing to protect them,” said an Arab diplomat based in Riyadh.

“If one missile hits NEOM or AlUla, there will be no investment or tourism. The vision will collapse.”

‘Lowering the temperature’

In making up with Iran, Prince Mohammed has not gone it alone.

Neighbouring Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates restored full diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic last year.

But the Saudi-Iranian deal is seen as more significant because the two Middle East heavyweights have often found themselves on opposite sides of conflicts – not just in Yemen but also in places including Lebanon and Iraq.

“The kingdom is pursuing a calibrated geopolitic reset that attempts to holistically improve the broader regional security environment,” said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia Group.

Iran, Saudi Arabia to restore ties in China-brokered deal

Anna Jacobs of the International Crisis Group added: “Lowering the temperature with Iran is a smart way to lower tensions across the region and mitigate some of the proxy battles surrounding Saudi Arabia.”

The next step for implementing the deal is a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, though it has not yet been scheduled.

Earlier this week, an Iranian official said President Ebrahim Raisi had favourably received an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia from King Salman, Prince Mohammed’s father, though Riyadh has yet to confirm.

These expected encounters will be closely watched as worries persist that the rapprochement remains fragile.

“Mistrust is deep between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” Jacobs said, “and both sides will need to see positive signals from the other very soon to proceed with the deal.”


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KU Mar 24, 2023 02:15pm
One can hope for the best for the Arab region under the guidance of new leadership that can work collectively for the people, and keep its distance from western politics. The western leaders seem to be comfortable with their consistent policy perception of the rest of the world and control over trade, but they should concentrate their efforts on a new foe, climate change. We are all faced with the impact of this change in the coming years and the fallout on food insecurity, migration, and human survival. They should ensure their pressure on corrupt governments so that the people of these developing countries do not suffer human rights violations and injustice.
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bonce richard Mar 24, 2023 06:08pm
@KU, He is a very smart person and loves the country, not like Punjabi and corrupted and criminal army to see the country for money. If you travel by train from Lahore to Peshawar after every 40 kilometers there is an army cantonment. May I know what is purpose only to waste of tax money?
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Az_Iz Mar 24, 2023 07:56pm
@bonce richard, security comes above everything else. And it is not free.
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Az_Iz Mar 24, 2023 07:57pm
The enemies of Muslims won’t be happy. They will do everything they can to undermine the rapprochement. It is going to be an uphill task for the Kingdom.
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Az_Iz Mar 24, 2023 07:59pm
If the Kingdom stands behind the Muslims and their priorities and causes, Muslims around the world will stand behind the Kingdom.
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KhanRA Mar 25, 2023 01:20am
@Az_Iz, There is such a thing as handing over too much power to the security services.
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KhanRA Mar 25, 2023 01:21am
@Az_Iz, this is an extreme level of paranoia. Who are the enemies of Islam exactly? India is happy for this meeting, and it was brokered by China. Both these countries treat Muslims badly. Europe is even happy. America and Israel night oppose Iran, but not because it is an enemy of Islam itself, but because they oppose Iran. They love Saudi Arabia, much as it seems you do.
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KhanRA Mar 25, 2023 01:22am
@Az_Iz, the Sheikhdom of Saudi Arabia looks after its own interests. There is no such thing as Muslim unity. Saudi Arabia needs to do much more before it gains respect.
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KhanRA Mar 25, 2023 01:24am
@bonce richard, MBS is not particularly smart. Look at his devastating war in Yemen, trusting Israel as it went far right and abused Palestinians more, and his order to kill Jamal Khashoggi.
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KhanRA Mar 25, 2023 01:38am
@bonce richard, those cantonments are all inherited from the British era. And they’re kept up because they are of course near Kashmir where 5 lakh Indian soldiers are amassed.
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dr.fahad Mar 25, 2023 03:00pm
@bonce richard, comment on Indian website ,
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Az_Iz Mar 26, 2023 09:57pm
@KhanRA, a glance thru Israeli media shows that they are not happy. Israelis were exploiting the Iran situation to get on the side of GCC , and at the same time send the Palestinian situation into limbo. Now the Israelis and their supporters either have to undermine this or come up with a new tactic.
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Az_Iz Mar 26, 2023 10:08pm
@KhanRA, one of the reasons why Israel is propped up in the middle is , to act as a check against the Arabs. Millions of Muslims have died from wars waged and supported by outsiders under various pretexts. They are not enemies, but friends? Don’t be naive.
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Az_Iz Mar 26, 2023 10:21pm
@KhanRA, Iran , Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya were bombed decimated , under various pretexts. Some will buy the explanation given, others will not. Some are naive and others are paranoid. If you are being decimated, don’t buy the justification.
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Az_Iz Mar 26, 2023 10:47pm
@KhanRA, Saddam was labeled a bad guy and Iraq was bombed to liberate it from this bad guy. But the same bad guy was propped up and supported by the same people, when he was attacking Iran without much justification. Are you naive, and do you believe everything that is fed to you.
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Az_Iz Mar 26, 2023 11:11pm
@KhanRA, the Israeli have rendered the Palestinians as stateless in their own lands. Are they friends or enemies of Muslims. Are they happy with this rapprochement? Don’t be naive.
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Asghar Ali Qadri Mar 27, 2023 11:27am
Indeed a highly encouraging geo political development! A new strong block is in the making!
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