Dividends of regional reconciliation
The recent launch of two border projects by Pakistan and Iran marks a new phase in closer economic cooperation between the neighbors. Meeting at the Pakistan-Iran border, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and President Ebrahim Raisi jointly inaugurated the Mand-Pishin Border Sustenance Marketplace and the Polan-Gabd Electricity Transmission Line. The former is the first of six markets to be established along the border to boost trade between the two countries and encourage more economic activity in Balochistan. The power transmission project will add to electricity already being purchased from Iran and aims to meet Balochistan’s energy needs.
Although these projects had been planned for some time, the growing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has helped open space for Islamabad to expand economic cooperation with Tehran. With the landmark Saudi-Iran deal in March to restore relations – brokered by China –Pakistan is capitalizing on this to improve relations and build greater trust with Iran, with whom ties have sometimes been frosty and even testy in the past.
Warmer relations between Pakistan and Iran are not the only consequence of the deepening Saudi-Iran détente. The impact of their rapprochement is being felt across the Middle East and is reshaping the regional geopolitical landscape and reordering relationships. It has promoted an environment of détente and reconciliation and holds the promise of peace and stability in a region long afflicted by conflicts, bitter regional rivalries and turmoil. The foreign policy initiatives undertaken by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aim to break from this past. They are in many respects a necessary accompaniment to the path breaking reforms he launched within his country, which are transforming Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Saudi government’s domestic reform agenda requires lowering of neighborhood tensions and a stable and predictable regional environment.
Regional reconciliation will have to address many challenges and overcome several hurdles to gather momentum and become irreversible and lasting. But for now, it offers the hope of regional powers finding regional solutions to their disputes.
The conflict in Yemen was always going to be the first test of the impact of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement. Progress, so far, has been encouraging. Last month Riyadh stepped up its peace efforts which included a meeting between the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen and a Houthi delegation in Sana’a. These efforts resulted in a prisoner swap between Yemen’s coalition forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Riyadh’s efforts to end the over eight-year war have been welcomed throughout the region and beyond. Although the peace talks have a long way to go, they have kindled hopes for a permanent ceasefire. In an upbeat briefing, the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg told the Security Council last week that “there is a clear demonstration on all sides to make progress towards a deal on humanitarian and economic measures, a permanent ceasefire and resumption of a Yemeni-led political process.” Elsewhere he was quoted as saying this was the nearest Yemen had been to peace since the fighting began eight years ago.
The warming in Saudi-Iran relations has also been evidenced in the return of Syria, Iran’s close ally, to the Arab League fold this month. This followed a breakthrough visit to Damascus by Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan in April – the first since 2011. His meeting with Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad brought to an end the diplomatic rupture that lasted for almost a decade. It also paved the way for easing of relations between Damascus and other Arab countries. Saudi efforts to build a consensus with other Arab nations led eventually to Syria’s readmission to the 22-member Arab League. Its return, after 12 years of suspension, was cast by the bloc’s Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit as “an Arab effort to facilitate the process of resolving the Syrian crisis.” This was a reference to most Arab states’ insistence that a political solution to the Syrian crisis was essential for the normalisation of relations with Damascus.
Nevertheless, President Assad’s participation in the Arab League summit on May 19 in Riyadh capped months of regional reconciliation efforts led by Saudi Arabia that ended the Syrian leader’s long isolation in the wake of his country’s brutal and bloody civil war. The Saudi Crown Prince’s remarks at the summit seemed to capture the mood of the region. He said, “We will not allow our region to become a theatre of conflicts,” and that the page should be turned on the past and its "painful years of conflicts.”
Regional reconciliation will however have to address many challenges and overcome several hurdles to gather momentum and become irreversible and lasting. But for now, it offers the hope of regional powers finding regional solutions to their disputes.
– Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN.