By Iran Review
By Sajad Mohseni*
In view of regional developments and special conditions of every actor in the Middle East, especially Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as three powerful regional actors, and also with the beginning of ceasefire in Yemen and the brake put on Daesh’s advances in Iraq and Syria, it seems that diplomatic aspects of the foreign policy of the region’s power triangle is demonstrating its importance more than before. In the meantime, the effort made by Saudi Arabia to improve its regional standing commensurate to moves made by its political and ideological rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been also remarkable.
Increased diplomatic activities by Saudi Arabia can be considered to a large extent as a reaction to regional and transregional diplomatic moves made by Iran. It seems that to boost their strategic bonds with other actors, these two regional actors are trying through “regional network building” to reduce the sphere of influence of the rival actor. As a result, from the viewpoint of conflicting regional actors, increased allies on the side of any actor can lead to reduced influence of the other. In the meantime, Cairo can play an important role as another power in the Middle East and North Africa. If this happens, in case Iran is taken out of the regional decision-making process, Cairo could be able to form the third side of the regional power triangle and Saudi government has been trying to pave the way for the return of the post-revolution Egypt to this process by redefining various layers of regional power.
In doing this, the Saudi government has tried to change distribution of power in the region by putting stronger focus on creating links among these three actors on the basis of its understanding of their shortcomings. Therefore, ideological, economic and political tools of each can be used separately. For this purpose, the Saudi government has paid more painstaking attention to “particularity” of every one of these actors. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s recent diplomatic relations with Egypt are more of an economic quality while its relations with Turkey have been defined on the basis of security priorities.
The approach taken by Saudi King Salman to Egypt has been aimed at creating unity between the two countries on the basis of economic issues, because it can be a powerful mechanism due to Egypt’s needs following its revolution, and the attention that Cairo is paying to improving the country’s economic situation following domestic conflicts. In line with this plan, King Salman tried in his recent trip to Egypt to put economic issues on top of the agenda of bilateral talks, which finally led to the conclusion of nine memorandums of understanding and three economic development plans, including in the area of the Suez Canal, to boost Egypt’s exports. One of the most important agreements signed between the two countries was the agreement to establish a joint investment fund worth USD 16 billion, which can pave the way for the construction of a marine bridge over a distance of about 50 kilometers to connect Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh port to Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk region through the Red Sea. One of the most important goals of this project can be establishment of expanded relations among member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] and their allied states in Africa. In addition to its political aspect, this bridge can pave the way for the facilitation of trade relations between the two countries, boost tourism activities in Saudi Arabia, and finally lead to an agreement for the establishment of a free economic zone followed by the implementation of housing, power, road construction and agriculture projects in Sinai Peninsula in order to energize Egypt’s economic development.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud is serving as another diplomatic arm of Riyadh, and based on the importance of actors, it seems that some sort of diplomatic division of labor has been made on the basis of the importance of regional and transregional actors among Mohammad bin Salman, minister of defense, Adel al-Jubeir, minister of foreign affairs, and King Salman, the king of Saudi Arabia. After a visit to Jordan, Mohammad bin Salman left for Abu Dhabi. During his stay in Jordan, the most important topic of discussion between King Abdullah of Jordan and Mohammad bin Salman was “rejecting Iran’s meddling in the region, which demonstrated the importance attached to Iran in recent visits made to other countries by Saudi officials. In Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Salman was the guest of Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, where he seemed to have discussed two military fields related to anti-Daesh coalition and regional issues.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s approach to Turkey is a political approach pivoted around establishment of a “strategic cooperation council” to boost political coordination between the two sides. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed King Salman’s presence in Turkey, calling King Salman as a “safety valve for the region,” and conferring on him the Order of the State of Republic of Turkey – the highest state order awarded to foreign nationals by the President of Turkey. This proved the importance that Ankara attached to Riyadh, just in the same way that King Salman’s presence in Turkey was the sign of the significance that Saudi Arabia attached to Turkey. Therefore, one of the most important matters discussed in talks between the two sides was the issue of Iran’s activities in the region in addition to the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah.
So, it seems that Saudi Arabia’s recent diplomatic moves have been aimed at achieving a number of goals. They include a gradual switch from hard confrontation toward soft confrontation with Iran by recruiting new allies in the region in response to Iran’s effort to find allies outside the region, and to repair Saudi Arabia’s military image before regional public opinion. Riyadh also seeks to move toward economic negotiations with regional actors as a model of economic development in the region; to consolidate regional unity around such pivotal actors as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey with the participation of peripheral actors like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait; to build a controlling network in the face of Iran as an actor that must be controlled; and finally to divide regional and transregional trips by Saudi officials on the basis of the importance of political actors as measured by their influence.
Doctoral Student of International Relations; Tarbiat Modarres University