Oman’s Diplomacy Navigates Multipolarity in the Gulf

Amid Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel and the latter’s aggressive retaliation against Gaza, the government of Oman has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Israel’s military forces from the enclave and strongly denounced the Israel Defense Forces’ “brutal aggression against Palestinian civilians. Oman’s official stance on the conflict highlights its proposed solutions for a long-term peace: an immediate ceasefire, followed by a transition to dialogue initiatives that center on the crucial goal of recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Talking to Anyone

On its face, Oman’s position on the war in Gaza bears striking similarity to those adopted by most of the Gulf states, including countries as varied as Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Omani and Iranian foreign ministers have expressed their country’s mutual support to the Palestinian people, as have the Omani and Saudi foreign ministers in a demonstration of GCC unity. However, while there is broad agreement among the Gulf states on the disproportionate nature of Israel’s military campaign and the need for an immediate ceasefire, they differ in their positions towards Hamas. The militant group has been largely condemned, even within the Arab world, for its repressive rule in Gaza, its use of funds to construct underground tunnels for itself but not protection for Palestinian civilians, and its commitment to carry out further atrocities against Israeli civilians. Since October 7, Oman has carefully positioned itself among the nations that have actively advocated to include the group in official dialogue efforts.

Oman’s Foreign Minister, Badr bin Hamad Albusaidi, illustrated this vision in a lecture delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on February 16. Titled “Talking to Anyone for the Good of Everyone,” Albusaidi called for an emergency international conference on Palestinian statehood. He argued that while Hamas’ actions on October 7 were unconscionable, the group “cannot be eradicated. If there is ever to be peace,” he continued, “the peacemakers will have to find a way to talk to [Hamas], and listen.”

Hardliners in Israel and the West chafe at the idea of directly negotiating with Hamas, which both the United States and the European Union have designated a terrorist organization. But doing so would be remarkably inconsistent with Oman’s long-held approach to its foreign relations, which has long prized diplomatic relations—even with the most controversial parties. In Yemen, Oman has emphasized the necessity of engaging a wide array of actors, particularly the Houthis, in direct negotiations. This has made Muscat the venue of choice for tough talks, and Oman has emerged as the foremost diplomatic partner of all sides in the conflict.

The sultanate’s actions in the current crisis mirror long-standing practice. In recent decades, Oman has played an intermediary role in support of intra-regional dialogue. In 2013, discussions between the United States and Iran in Muscat eventually paved the way for the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or “nuclear deal,” two years later. Though the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018, Oman-mediated discussions between the two sides quietly continued. The release of several American citizens from Iran in September 2023 was widely perceived as an attempt to reestablish the conditions for JCPOA negotiations. Crucially, in these endeavors, Oman only acted in moments when all sides had expressed willingness to proceed towards dialogue, and the Omani official positions did not openly contradict those of the other parties.

Today, as the Houthis began launching attacks against allegedly Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea and the United States and United Kingdom have sought to counter them, the Omani government has worked diligently to reduce tensions from both sides. Indeed, Oman’s central role drew British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who paid a visit to Oman on January 30.

A Flexible Go-Between

The Omani official position vis-à-vis the Gaza conflict explicitly embraces the linkage between the violence there and the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea. As underlined by Abdullah Al Maani, a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, “Oman is actively engaged in efforts to de-escalate the Red Sea crisis by addressing its underlying cause: the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” As such, the Omani government has been very careful in showcasing its facilitation efforts and prioritizing intra-regional dialogue over a U.S.-led approach that would leave the status quo largely unchanged.

Moreover, despite Oman’s implicit rejection of the U.S. policy toward the Israel-Gaza war, the Omani government has not renounced negotiations with the Biden administration. In November 2023, the Omani Foreign Ministry openly aired the differences between the two country’s positions. Officials also spoke about the need for regional cooperation to prevent further escalation. Washington’s recent actions suggest a different tack. That the U.S. Department of State re-designated the Houthis a “Specially Designated Terrorist Group” (though not a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” which is a slightly harsher classification) in January 2024 drives a wedge between Washington and Muscat, precluding the latter from getting all the major actors in one room.

Divergence from the United States’ position does not necessarily reduce Oman’s potential as a regional go-between. Currently, the most logical path forward for Oman would be to further strengthen the channels of communication between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were re-opened in March 2023 (also thanks to Omani efforts). The Sultanate’s facilitation has proven effective in fostering dialogue between the Saudis, the Houthis, and the Iranians, and Oman has been recognized as playing a major role in securing Saudi and Houthi commitments to a ceasefire. At the moment, neither Riyadh nor the Houthis appear willing to relinquish opportunities for future dialogue, especially because they find themselves on (roughly) the same side of the Gaza conflict.

Though Omani diplomatic engagements suggest a longer-term effort to connect the Red Sea crisis to the Palestinian issue, Oman also needs to address concerns over  the impact of the Houthi attacks. Although Oman’s exports are primarily directed eastward towards Asian markets, the crisis will eventually come to indirectly affect the Sultanate as global supply chains are threatened.

Embracing Multipolarity

To effectively neutralize the threat posed to the region by the Houthis while keeping a symbolic distance from the U.S.-led maritime security operation, Oman has strengthened its cooperation with outside powers that hold power projection capabilities, including India. In December 2023, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Albusaidi visited New Delhi and paved the way for the increased involvement of the Indian Navy in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula. As part of the deal, Oman allocated a zone in the port of Duqm as a logistic base for Indian naval operations.

The designation of a dedicated zone in Duqm enhances India’s logistical capabilities at a crucial time; the Indian Navy recently began its largest deployment of naval assets to the Gulf of Aden and western Arabian Sea. The operation’s objective is simple and limited: to prevent pirates from exploiting the ongoing maritime crisis, while extending assistance to commercial vessels impacted by the Houthi attacks. The Indian navy remains cautious not to venture into the Red Sea, which would associate it with the U.S.-led coalition and potentially provoke the Houthis.

The maritime dimension is a prominent example of the rise of multipolarity within the Gulf, but this trend extends beyond security. Oman’s Foreign Minister recently insisted on the need for reform at the UN Security Council, which perpetuates a Cold War-style, zero-sum logic among the world’s great powers. Oman has also increasingly joined India’s calls for a Global South dialogue, which would unite voices sidelined by traditional international institutions. In September 2023, Sultan Haitham was invited as a special guest to the G20 summit in New Delhi, and Oman took part in the second virtual “Voice of the Global South Summit” organized by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in November 2023. There, the Sultanate acknowledged India’s important role in “facilitating a platform for global cooperation and discussions on critical international issues.”

The diversification of security and political partners has distant roots in Oman and the wider Gulf, but it seems to have been accelerated by the Israel-Gaza conflict and Washington’s subsequent maritime activities in the Red Sea, which have been perceived within the Arab world as intended to support Israel rather than to protect freedom of navigation. Thus far, Washington has struggled to convince the Gulf monarchies to decouple the Red Sea crisis from the Gaza crisis. Washington’s failure has caused not only its rivals, but also its regional allies to grow skeptical of the United States’ security role in the region and seek greater independence in their international affairs. This fluid situation may prove novel for some external observers—and even the United States. But for the Gulf monarchies, and Oman more than others, flexibility, and receptiveness has long been the name of the game. What seems to have changed is Oman’s greater willingness to express thought-provoking positions that openly challenge the U.S., embracing multipolarity not only in silent deeds but also in words.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

New Year’s Woes: Five Worrying Trends for Iranian Households

March 21 marks the turn of the Persian calendar. Iranians welcome the Persian New Year as people worldwide celebrate the start of the Gregorian calendar: with get-togethers and festivities. This year, however, Iranian households do not have much to celebrate. In recent years, Western sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic shock, and chronic inflation have left a flagging economy, which has placed severe strain on ordinary Iranians.

To protect low-income families, President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration has embraced various policies like paying monthly cash hand-outs and issuing electronic vouchers for basic commodities. Experts remain divided about the real impact of these policies, but one thing is true; the Iranian economy has thus far managed to beat the worst expectations of widespread collapse.

International interest in restoring the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has waned significantly over the past two years. Instead, the Raisi administration has prioritized its “Look to the East” policy, which advocates for partnerships with U.S. rivals—namely Russia and China. “Look to the East” also calls for realizing “economic resilience” against factors that threaten to derail the Iranian economy. Through direct payments and favorable subsidies, the Raisi administration has sought to convince Iranians that the Islamic Republic has fared better during the current president’s tenure than under his moderate predecessor Hassan Rouhani, who signed the JCPOA in exchange for sanctions relief.

Nonetheless, the Iranian economy faces unprecedented challenges. Here are five causes for concern among Iranian families—trends expected to cause significant distress in the new calendar year.

Runaway Inflation

The Iranian economy has experienced rapid price hikes over the past six years after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reinstated stringent sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Growing inflation has always been a major cause of concern for Iranian households, particularly the lowest-income households whose wages are often outpaced by consumer price hikes. According to the Statistics Center of Iran (SCI), foodstuffs have seen their prices grow up to 250 percent between March 2021 and March 2024. The SCI’s household budget report indicates that the lowest-income deciles have slashed their meat consumption in search of alternatives.

Indeed, Iran’s most needy have adjusted their purchasing behavior, seeking those food items whose prices the Raisi administration has artificially suppressed through subsidies. The housing sector has not been spared the pain of inflation; SCI reports an average two-fold jump in housing prices for the last three years. Housing prices in big cities like Tehran have skyrocketed, alienating Iranian youth who once had hopes of affording personal housing. Meanwhile, mortgage loans may hardly cover 10 percent of housing costs. As the latest data released by Iran’s Central Bank show, an apartment in the capital costs an average of IRR 740 million (about $1,233) per square meter, while the minimum labor salary remains at only IRR 100 million ($166). Only the most well-off Iranians can afford proper housing in the country’s largest city.

Tax and Spend

Iranian households are also concerned with ever-greater tax hikes amid stagnant revenues. The bite of sanctions and lower income from oil exports have placed an immense strain on the Islamic Republic’s finances. In an attempt to wean itself off petrodollars, make up for revenue shortfalls, and plug the gaping budget deficit, the government has resorted to levying heavier taxes on the population. The budget bill drafted for the next calendar year requires a 50 percent increase in taxes to fund the government. Tehran also intends to overturn a tax exemption granted to many businesses—a decision sure to pose serious risks to small businesses. The value-added tax (VAT) rate will climb to 10 percent, up one point. In parallel with higher taxation, the Central Bank’s new restrictions seeking to contain money supply growth, has  made it more difficult for Iranian businesses to access bank loans in a financial system in which banks dominate domestic investment.

Independent pundits have long warned the Central Bank about the likelihood of inflationary shocks brought about by the government’s runaway spending. However, the Raisi administration has highlighted statistics that suggest solid economic growth, presenting them as a great achievement in a bid to strengthen the public’s confidence in the national economy. Ehsan Khandouzi, the minister of economy and finance, recently claimed that the Islamic Republic had achieved a 5.1 percent economic growth rate in the third quarter of the current fiscal year. In its latest report, the World Bank estimated Iran’s economic growth at 4.2 percent in 2023, a rate that would decline to 3.7 percent in 2024. On the other hand, the government must wrangle devastating inflation, which it hopes to drive to 20 percent from the current rate of 35.8 percent.

Unemployment and Emigration

The reimposition of international sanctions in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic have devastated Iranian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs account for the majority of employers in Iran. The World Bank has estimated that the Iranian economy lost one million jobs since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019. Women bore the brunt of the country’s economic woes, accounting for two-thirds of job losses. The SCI report shows that women’s pre-COVID employment share stood at 14.5 percent, which fell to 12.4 percent in late 2023.

Meanwhile, the central government continues to claim that the jobless rate has fallen in recent years, even speaking of an “unprecedented” drop in unemployment. Nonetheless, the state-promoted data has failed to dissuade many Iranians, particularly educated ones, from emigrating. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of Iranians looking to migrate to other countries grew 141 percent—the fastest rate of migration to wealthy nations across the globe. A report released by the Iranian Migration Observatory highlighted growing requests by Iranians for asylum, education, or job outside the country in recent years, noting that Iran had entered the phase of “unbridled collective migration.” Amid such an imbroglio, government officials have sought in vain to restrict migration by enticement or threats—even going as far as police action.

Economic Fluctuations

The fourth factor spreading concern among Iranian households is not unique to Iran. Rising regional geopolitical tensions, led by the October 7 attack against Israel, have had a major impact on the economic outlook for most Gulf states.

The Islamic Republic, faced with internal discontent and economic woes, has tried its best to ward off any direct confrontation with the West and Israel. It must be noted, however, that regional tensions—the continuation of which the Islamic Republic has made a mainstay of its foreign policy—have directly contributed to the depreciation of the Iranian rial and, as a result, the declining purchasing power of Iranian households. Over the past year, the Raisi government managed to stabilize the official forex rate, though higher demand and regional instability in the final months of 2023 led the dollar to reclaim ground in the unofficial market. As a result, the value of the Iranian rial has slid at least 15 percent. The better Tehran can manage regional tensions and reach a modus operandi with the West and its neighbors, the more stable the forex market will become and the faster the economic situation of ordinary Iranians will improve. A clear case in point was the relative stability in the forex market after the China-brokered reconciliation deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023.

Tehran’s diplomatic breakthroughs in normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia and Arab governments as well as joining international alliances like BRICS (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa before Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates were invited to join) also upgraded Iran’s regional standing and pushed the country out of a long period of isolation, which could lead to future economic windfalls even if they have had little impact on the Iranian economy to date. Embracing new partnerships may enable Iran to better circumvent U.S. sanctions. As long as sanctions remain in place, however, America’s position as the leading financial power allows Washington to choke off any major foreign investment in Iran.

Trump’s Return

The forthcoming presidential election in the United States will also have a massive impact on U.S.-Iran relations and the well-being of ordinary Iranians. Of course, Iranians hold a bitter memory of Donald Trump’s term in office. It was he who unilaterally scuppered the JCPOA, which inflicted a heavy shock on the Iranian economy. The withdrawal of the United States frightened many foreign companies who were previously willing to invest in Iran. Washington also heaped pressure on the buyers of Iranian oil—the lifeblood of the country’s economy.

President Joe Biden’s 2020 election win against Trump created some breathing space for Iran. The new president revived the hopes of millions of Iranians that the JCPOA could be restored and their livelihood would improve. Some experts believe that Trump’s comeback could stoke inflation. Iran’s crude oil exports have reached 1.3 million bpd, far from the average of 300,000 bpd recorded under Trump.

Though Biden did nothing to relieve sanctions against Iran, negotiations were relaunched for the U.S. to return to the JCPOA. With Trump the presumptive Republican nominee for president, it is very possible he returns to the Oval Office in 2025. Trump’s comeback would likely shatter any hope for a deal with Tehran for good and adversely impact Iran’s economy.

Even if Biden were to win reelection in November, Iranian households would undeniably face numerous challenges. As in recent years, Iranian household spending has been under significant strain. Absent major and tangible shifts in foreign policy, ordinary Iranians will continue to bear the brunt of the Iran-US animosity. Moreover, with hardliners and staunch critics of the JCPOA dominating Iran’s parliament, the prospects of such a marked shift are even more unlikely. Iran’s lumbering economy will likely muddle through under foreign pressure in the new calendar year. However, the present circumstances in Iran indicate a society sinking deeper and deeper into poverty each day. Regardless of the official data and narratives, ordinary Iranians are condemned to an existence marked by economic instability, dilemma, coercion, fear, and concerns over the possible comeback of an unpredictable president in the United States. To provide the modest, stable life that so many Iranians desire, the Iranian government must relieve the pressure of sanctions and realize better relations with the West.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Iran’s Electoral Crossroads: Voter Dissent and the Shift Toward a Conservative Future

Elections for the 12th term of the Iranian Parliament and the sixth term of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership took place on March 1. 25 million citizens of the Islamic Republic participated in this election—equivalent to 41 percent of eligible voters. Turnout was slightly (1.5 percent) lower than the previous elections in February 2020. Analysis of the election points to three outcomes that relate directly to the legitimacy of the regime, the behavior of the voters, and the future of Iran’s political sphere.

Wither the Regime?

The March 1 election cycle was the first to take place after the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests, during which more than 500 people were killed by the regime. The dire economic situation across the country compounded a general sense that the government threatened the people’s freedoms through mandatory hijab bills and restricted internet access. It was feared that this sense of repression would cause Iranians to sit out the 2024 election cycle out of general disillusionment. However, the strong showing indicated that although the Iranian regime exhibits many weaknesses, it is under no threat of imminent collapse.

Political scientist Jack A. Goldstone has identified five conditions necessary for a revolution to succeed: “national economic or fiscal strain, alienation and opposition among the elites, widespread popular anger at injustice, a persuasive shared narrative of resistance, and favorable international relations.” Despite the clear framework Goldstone provides for a successful revolution, the current situation in Iran diverges significantly due to several mitigating factors.

First, though the regime faces economic pressure, U.S. President Joe Biden’s easing of sanctions has allowed the regime to trade abroad and generate some hydrocarbon revenues. Second, a large group of ruling elites have remained loyal to the regime for numerous reasons, including financial gain and out of fear for their own lives should the regime collapse. Third, there is widespread outrage at injustice in Iran, but it does not necessarily unify the public against the elites in Tehran. Fourth, the opposition lacks an alternative vision for a post-Islamic Republic Iran capable of bringing the public together in a united struggle. Finally, international conditions are favorable to the regime, including support from China and Russia.

Despite all the damage done to the legitimacy of the regime, these factors suggest that the Islamic Republic maintains a strong position among its supporters, who consider supporting the Islamic Revolution as supporting Islam and abandoning it as a sign of irreligion and weak faith. Absent a unified opposition that overcomes these obstacles, the elites in Tehran have little reason to fear the collapse of the status quo.

An Election Unlike Any Other

Accepting that the government is far from falling does not suggest that the majority of people support it or cannot challenge its legitimacy. Though the regime may point to only a small decrease in voter participation, the recent elections showed that about 60 percent of the people refused to head to the polls. The number of invalid votes in this election registered 8 percent, a reminder of the high number of invalid votes of 13 percent in the previous elections—the presidential election in June 2021—which was the highest number of votes after those for the leading candidate.

The turnout was especially low in some of Iran’s largest cities. The results of a state TV poll held a month before the election showed that 52% of the respondents did not even know when the elections would take place. The disqualification of a large group of candidates by the Guardian Council and the cold electoral climate caused the Iran Reform Front to declare the elections of this period “meaningless, non-competitive, unfair, and ineffective,” and to refuse to present a list of candidates in Tehran. Even former politicians have grown disillusioned. “People have lost faith in the efficiency of the parliament. They say, what is [its] function? [Which of the regime’s officials] listen to the representatives?” Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a member of parliament for several terms, said in an interview with the Khabaronline news agency.

The second-most important trend observed in voters’ behavior was the spread of “non-list” voting. During the most recent elections, especially in Tehran, voters tended to vote for independents or a group of people in various lists. The voters’ disillusionment with the status quo and their apparent powerlessness to change it, the coldness of the election atmosphere, and the lack of trust in the effectiveness and efficiency of the parliament, all contributed to political newcomers—consisting of radicals, conservatives, and independents—winning parliamentary seats. This behavior caused the elections in 14 provinces to go to a runoff. In Tehran, about half of the seats were determined by runoffs.

Non-list voting tends to create a parliament consisting of candidates approved by the Guardian Council, who are in turn more likely to support government policies. Thus, because the main reformist and critical factions boycotted the vote, what occurred in Iran cannot be called a true national election. Indeed, the absence of major political forces fractured the traditional field of candidates, many of whom were replaced by non-political independents and local influencers. This behavior was predictable. In countries gripped by populist fervor and during dire economic situations, candidates make hot economic promises. The most recent Iranian elections did not follow this trend, however. Mohammadreza Yousefi, the professor of Qom Seminary, put this down to the fact that most candidates were aware of the lack of public participation in the elections and the high number of invalid votes. As a result, Yousefi said, “candidates target specific groups, rather than all people.” Indeed, non-list voting causes the election to become a social and ethnic matter, rather than a traditional political contest. Seyyed Hossein Marashi, Secretary General of Executives of Construction Party, in an interview with the newspaper Sazendagi, believes that the regime tried to adopt a new strategy in this election.

Rather than conduct a traditional campaign, elites aligned with the regime tried to replace traditional political divides with social platforms, which are largely based on the activities of ethnic groups and local groups. The regime had long recognized that widespread participation among urbanites was unlikely. So it tried to take the election contests to small towns that harbor ethnic and tribal prejudices. With this, the political competition turned into a social competition between different ethnic groups and regions, which the regime hoped, with some prescience, would compensate for lower turnout in the big cities.

Aftermath

The conduct of the election and its results will hamper the next parliament’s ability to achieve political goals, as representatives will pursue the ethnic and cultural demands specific to their region. With this, local rivalries will take the place of ordinary politics, and instead of an active parliament that acts in the interest of the country, ethnic conflicts will prevail.

The consequences of the most recent elections will also reverberate beyond Iran’s borders. The formation of a parliament consisting of radical elements that will push the future of the Iranian political sphere towards fundamentalism and conservatism in foreign policy, as well. Though the election’s exact effects remain uncertain, it is undoubtedly clear that the more radical factions have gained significant ground on the traditional and moderate fundamentalists.

In Tehran, the top three candidates are members of the “Front of Islamic Revolution Stability.” This party believes in religious authority and revolutionary and radical reforms. Fourth place in Tehran fell to Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the current Speaker of the parliament and a moderate conservative. He had introduced a list of similar moderate candidates under the “Coalition Council of Revolutionary Forces,” but received few votes. The “Voice of the Nation” list attributed to Ali Motahari, who is also moderate, received little support. Instead, the “Morning of Iran” list attributed to Ali Akbar Raefipour, one of the traditional and radical religious-social speakers, won the most votes in Tehran. This method promises the formation of a parliament composed of extremists.

The most recent parliamentary elections took place amid serious speculation about the Iranian people’s convictions about participating in such an unfree electoral process, and the results confirm those doubts. In the end, voters sent a clear message to the regime: we oppose your authoritarian policies. Now it is up to the newly elected representatives and the government’s officials to heed the voice of the people.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

An American University Retreats from Qatar to Texas

The undermining of America’s global role is most easily seen far from Washington—in College Station, Texas. Earlier this month, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University ended the college’s 21-year partnership with Qatar, which had supported a satellite campus of A&M’s engineering school (TAMU Qatar) at the multi-university campus of Education City. The saga of Texas A&M’s erstwhile partnership with Qatar captures the zeitgeist of today’s America, as the United States abjures its global leadership role abroad, abandons overseas engagements, and retreats within itself.

Unilateral Withdrawal

The Texas A&M Board of Regents’ abrupt decision to cancel an existing 10-year contract came with no public discussion, no input from the Qatar branch (or even the American campus), and with only one Regent dissenting. At the time of the decision, one university administrator expressed doubts that any member of the Board had even been to Qatar, speculating that it “had no idea what was going on in Doha.” In fact, one member of the Board had visited Doha—the only Regent who voted against closing TAMU Qatar. Qatar Foundation (QF), the government agency funding the school, complained afterward that it had been completely blindsided by the decision. Even the loss of QF’s estimated $75 million yearly layout in support of the campus, its faculty, and its research activities could not sway the Board.

Texas A&M had long faced harassment about the overseas campus, mostly from American conservatives suspicious of Qatar’s cordial relationships with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. One right-wing legal organization brought a lawsuit on behalf of a client that accused the university of funding “antisemitism” and demanded the disclosure of funds paid to the university by “terrorist-linked Qatar.” A Texas court upheld these claims in March 2023. More recently—some two months before the Regents’ vote—a different group produced a report alleging that Texas A&M had licensed nuclear energy and weapons research to Qatar, thereby implying that the university had played a role in arming Hamas ahead of the group’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Mark Welsh III, Texas A&M’s president, denounced these findings as “false and irresponsible.” For its part, Qatar would later blame the “disinformation campaign” launched by these outlets for the Regents’ abrupt decision to quit Education City.

Explaining the Controversy Away

Though President Welsh condemned the reports as “misinformation,” he also asserted that the disinformation campaign had “no influence” over the Board’s decision to withdraw from Qatar. Little information regarding the Regents’ motives has emerged, even though the motion to close the Doha branch was introduced and finalized in less than a minute. Those in Qatar—theoretically the most affected by the closure—complained afterward that they had been left out of this “prearranged” vote, which felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a true debate of the necessity of a branch campus in Qatar. A spokesman for the Board alluded to the influence of regional instability and changing institutional priorities in its ultimate decision. The Board chairman pointed to the core mission of Texas A&M to perform its mission to develop engineers in Texas and the United States, which did not require a satellite campus “8,000 miles away.” As detractors of the decision were quick to point out, Texas A&M established its Doha campus in 2003—arguably a time of even greater regional instability with the United States engaged in not one, but two regional wars. At the time of the campus’ opening, Robert Gates served as the president of Texas A&M; he would later go on to serve as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and was lauded for his international experience. In the current political environment, however, Texas A&M’s leadership does not see its overseas presence as relevant to the University’s mission.

The board’s motivations for the closure may be even simpler and possibly more superficial. If the Board found that the Qatar campus’ income and the overseas exposure it provided the university were unimportant, any drawbacks associated with the relationship would be that much more intolerable. The ongoing war in Gaza brought home unpleasant, thorny issues that placed the university in a bind; as one Texas A&M administrator put it, the ouster of Harvard President Claudine Gay after being paraded before a congressional committee as an anti-Semite was not something that conservative Texans would like to see happen in their state. Texas A&M’s leadership would also find it difficult to defend an ongoing relationship with Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political wing, in front of right-wing legislators already intent on uncovering higher education’s ties to Islamist extremists.

What Was Left Behind

The biggest losers from the Board’s abrupt decision to withdraw from Qatar are the Gulf’s underserved communities. In the 21 years that TAMU has existed, it has graduated some 1,300 engineers, almost 40% of them women.   The five other American universities with campuses at Education City, including Georgetown University Qatar, form the largest grouping of American schools outside the United States. Administrators at these schools may feel trepidation as a result of A&M’s decision, though none have yet announced their own plans to leave Qatar.

This domestic threat to America’s global role in higher education is notable and new. When these universities first arrived in Qatar in the early 2000s, memories of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq were the period’s immediate worries.  Resistance from the tradition-bound, religious regimes of the Gulf region was the primary concern of the university pioneers that had begun the foray into countries unfamiliar with liberal Western education systems. Would local populations support liberal education? Could academic freedom survive the pressures of conservative elites, many of whom ruled with little room for free speech in their own countries? Could women and non-Muslim minorities be tolerated and supported in a homogenous, mono-religious society? With occasional friction, these questions have generally been answered in the affirmative, and U.S. universities have played a major role in providing greater individual freedoms and expanding educational opportunities for the next generation of Arab leaders. The customs and politics of the Middle East have not prevented the people of this region from embracing the benefits of liberal American education. Ties of friendship and learning, as well as the impact of a sustained American presence in the Gulf, have bound the United States to the people of the region to the benefit of all parties.

Curiously, America’s isolationist and xenophobic impulses now threaten the United States’ role in the world more than the opposition of other states and peoples. A critical mass of Americans has come out against foreign engagement, endangering the critical role of universities, which build bridges between cultures and overwhelmingly serve American interests. In 1970, amidst the dejection of the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, and ideological competition, cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is time to realize that we do not have to be.

Iraq’s Perennial Electricity Problem and its Implications for Social Stability

The growing social unrest we see in Iraq today can be directly linked to the government’s inability to provide basic services, including electricity, to its citizens. Power disruptions have increased in recent years and are likely to reemerge this summer, placing an immense strain on the government’s relationship with the Iraqi people.

Nearly two decades after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statues, the Iraqi government still struggles to provide its society with electricity around the clock. The Iraqi electricity sector suffered even before the 2003 invasion, but the last 19 years have seen it weakened even more due to severe corruption and gross negligence. The plans put forth by the government to tackle the lack of electricity have more often proven an easy way for officials to embezzle funds through lucrative contracts than a way to improve the lives of Iraqi citizens. As a result, instead of leveraging its own resources, Iraq has become more reliant on Iran to meet its electricity demands.

A Mounting Crisis

Widespread electricity outages are part of daily life in Iraq and affect citizens regardless of class. To compound this issue, the gap between available electricity and state-wide demand is set to widen in the future. The past five years have already witnessed a growing disparity between electricity supplied by the government and the electricity demanded by the Iraqi people; so far, Iraqi electricity consumption—which grew nearly 30% during this period—has outpaced the government’s efforts to meet surging demand. The outages also contribute to the government’s inability to provide other basic public goods, such as hospitals, airports, and other government buildings whose good functioning has suffered from the interruptions.

These problems will only grow worse in both the short and long term. For example, the next scorching summer will dramatically stretch Iraq’s capacity to meet demand. Observers noted last year that, as the government struggles to meet the people’s need for electricity, protests and demonstrations become more likely, as observers noted last year. Long term, the challenge will be more arduous. Some estimates point at an increase in demand of nearly 10 percent year-on-year, while others suggest that if Iraq’s population increases by one million persons per year, total demand for electricity will double by 2030. Meanwhile, terrorist groups have sought to take advantage of Iraq’s discontent against the government by sabotaging electricity grids and attempting 18 attacks against transmission lines.

The Curse of Corruption

Rampant corruption remains the central reason behind the frequent disruption of electricity in Iraq.  Iraq desperately needs to modernize its entire electricity supply chain— from generation to transmission and distribution. It also needs “to rehabilitate the country’s grid that generates about 15,000 megawatts, although peak demand can reach around 24,000 MW.” There is a nexus among businessmen, politicians, and armed groups that benefit from the status quo that ensures that each party receives their cut from the government’s contracts. Billions of dollars are siphoned away from public coffers by inflating the prices of construction materials; those officials who refuse to take part in these corrupt practices face threats and often lose their jobs. The result leads to both a dearth of reliable electricity and a waste of the country’s natural resources and taxpayer funds. Iraq’s Prime Minister claimed that Iraq has spent more than $62 billion on restoring electricity. A parliamentary committee put the number even higher; an investigation of the utility sector estimated that Iraq has invested $81 billion since 2005 without any noteworthy improvement to its electrical output or the grid’s reliability.

Iraq’s shortages of electricity also stem from its failure to tap into the country’s natural resources. For example, Iraq is endowed with significant amounts of natural gas, but the country lacks the capability to capture it and leverage its immense reserves into electricity. At the same time, the country flares (or burns) huge quantities of methane gas associated with oil extraction. According to the World Bank, Iraq is one of seven countries that account for “roughly two-thirds (65%) of global gas flaring.” In 2017 alone, Iraq flared more than 600 billion cubic feet of natural gas, making it second only to Russia. The more oil Iraq produces, the more gas it will inevitably flare. If Iraq were to harness the natural gas emitted by its oil wells instead of wasting it in this way, it could achieve a more balanced energy portfolio and alleviate some of its domestic electricity problems.

Failing to do so will only leave Iraq more reliant on Iran for more expensive natural gas and electricity. According to the Iraqi Oil Minister, Ihsan Ismael, Iraq pays Iran $8 per million British thermal units (BTU) for Iranian gas. By comparison, it is estimated that it would cost the government less than $2 BTU to produce Iraqi natural gas. Iraq also relies on Iran for nearly a third of its electricity, though this too has been subject to interruptions. For instance, when Iran reduced gas supplies from 50 million cubic feet to 8.5 million cubic feet to Iraq because of unpaid bills, widespread electricity shortages struck central and southern Iraq. Though Baghdad has sought to diversify its electricity supply through overtures to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait, progress on these fronts has been hindered due to disagreements over pricing. Nor will the government’s plan of purchasing natural gas from Qatar be realized soon. Reconfiguring Iraqi infrastructure so that the country may import natural gas will take significant investments over a long period of time. Meanwhile, global demand for natural gas is increasing amid the Russia-Ukraine war. Therefore, gas exporting states like Qatar will likely prioritize fulfilling existing contracts before taking on new customers.

Finally, part of Iraq’s electricity problem can be traced back to the country’s neglect of renewable energy resources. Given the intense sunshine in Iraq— particularly in the western and southern parts of the country—more than half of Iraq could rely on solar energy if Iraq fully realizes its capacity to harness the power of the sun. The growing demand for electricity could be met with cost effective and self-sufficient solar power. The government currently plans to generate between 2.24 and 7.5 GW of electricity from renewable energy by 2025. This is likely an exaggeration of future capacity, as harnessing renewable energy sources will face many hurdles; Iraq lacks a coherent solar policy, a strong legal system, and the ability to attract foreign investment because of byzantine bureaucratization. At the same time, the government must balance its desire for a diverse energy portfolio with its other objectives, including  distribution, transportation, fee collection, and electricity infrastructure reconstruction.

Electricity is one of the public goods that impacts essential parts of daily life for millions and has been one of many reasons behind widespread discontent with the central government in Baghdad. Although the current government is trying to ameliorate the situation by devising new plans and diversifying its energy supply, these measures will prove to be a short-term fix for a deeply ingrained and worsening problem. Iraqis will endure another sizzling summer without appropriate access to electricity. As significant improvements to Iraqi electricity infrastructure remain elusive, the likelihood of protests will only increase.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Islamic Finance and Banking as a Response to Western Sanctions: Muslim Russia and the GCC States in an Age of Geopolitical Rivalry

From the 19th to the 21st of May, Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan held the 13th International Economic Summit, titled “Russia-Islamic World: Kazan Summit 2022.” This annual summit aims to encourage cooperation between Russia and the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the fields of economy, trade, science and technology. The Summit included the Russia Halal Expo 2022 exhibition, World Halal Day, and other traditional events, such as the Forum of Young Entrepreneurs of OIC Countries, the Forum of Young Diplomats of OIC Countries, and SberTalk.

This year’s conference was marked by its unique symbolism; the event was dedicated to the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by the Volga Bulgars (Volga Tatars). The conversion of the Volga Bulgars followed the visit of a Islamic delegation, led by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan and sent by the Abbasid Caliph Jaffar Al-Muqtadir. In addition to marking this transformative moment, the Forum occurred in uniquely challenging geopolitical circumstances. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated tensions between Russia and the West, and the former remains shackled by a raft of severe economic and financial sanctions.

Every new wave of various recent crises has caused Russia to turn further away from the West and toward the East. For example, the idea to introduce Islamic banking in the Russian Federation first arose during the financial crisis in 2008, when banks faced a shortage of liquidity and began to look for alternative sources of cash. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian banks felt the squeeze of Western sanctions. In response, the Association of Russian Banks proposed allowing Islamic banking in the Russian Federation and establishing a committee within the Central Bank to regulate the activities of Sharia banks.

These activities have remained quite limited until now. But as Russia must adjust to a new, more severe wave of sanctions, Islamic banking and investments from the OIC, which forums such as Kazan Summit seek to attract, may emerge as a palatable alternative to Western investors. Unsurprisingly, the conference drew much attention to the original emissary Ibn Fadlan, connecting his travels nearly a millennium ago to Russia’s contemporary links to the Gulf region. To what extent might this link emerge as crucial for bilateral relations with the Gulf states? In other words, can shared Muslim identities—that may transcend the current raft of sanctions—soothe Russia’s economic worries and enhance Moscow’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East? Arguably, the current geopolitical rivalry may push Russia to look to the Middle East for its economic development, though challenges to this shift remain to be addressed.

Tatarstan’s “Halal Lifestyle” as the Key to Collaboration with the GCC States

The Kazan Summit project is part of the Group of the Strategic Vision “Russia-Islamic world.” Established in 2006, the Group has been coordinated by the Republic of Tatarstan, and the government retains significant control over the organization’s leadership. In 2014, current President Rustam Minnikhanov was appointed as the Group’s chairman. Tatarstan, as an economically developed and predominantly Muslim region of Russia, has been central to the development of Islamic finance infrastructure in the country. In 2020, I interviewed Marat Gatin, the former the head of the Sector for Asian and African Countries of the Department of Foreign Relations of the President of the Republic of Tatarstan (2009 – 2010). He currently serves as the Head of the Representative office of Rossotrudnichestvo in Egypt. He said:

“[…] if before the mid-2000s, a great emphasis on regional interaction was of a religious nature, then in the last 10-15 years it has begun to move into the economic plane. Here, if we take Rustam Minnikhanov, he promotes the importance of drawing on the experience of the Muslim countries of the Arab world in introducing Islamic banking tools into our daily life. Islamic banking is part of what he calls the ‘halal lifestyle’ (in the Arab countries it is called a little differently – it is called ‘Islamic lifestyle’). It is very comprehensive, but with an emphasis on the economy; this includes developments of sectors, such as tourism, Islamic banking, and the production of relevant pharmaceuticals.”

Foreign direct investment (FDI) flows from the Gulf countries to Tatarstan was $68 million by 2019. Investments from Saudi Arabia in Russia amounted to $185 million, and in Tatarstan totalled $3 million. Saudi investments in Tatarstan established the Kingdom as a shareholder in the Tatarstan International Investment Company of Islamic Development Bank. Indeed, both Tatarstan and Saudi Arabia see plenty of opportunities to cooperate on Islamic banking and finance in the future. In particular, this ongoing work is closely associated with the Islamic Development Bank. Taliya Minullina, Chief Executive of the Tatarstan Investment Development Agency and the person responsible for convening the Kazan Summit, spoke to Saudi-Tatar coordination during my interview in 2020:

“We work with those institutions that in Saudi Arabia set the standards for organizing accounting and auditing in Islamic institutions. We have a consultant in Saudi Arabia, specifically on Islamic banking, they help us. We have the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, we have a local bank, Ak Bars Bank, which recently launched a mortgage product in accordance with sharia law. That is, we make Islamic contracts in accordance with these international standards and in order to be consulted, we work a lot with Saudi Arabia in this area.”

Tatarstan also finds the UAE among its key partners for fostering Islamic banking in the Republic. For example, the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Tatarstan Investment Development Agency at Kazan Summit 2018. The MoU enabled the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre to host a number of workshops focusing on cooperation with the Strategic Vision “Russia-Islamic World” to share knowledge linked to Islamic banking and finance, identify leading developments and trends in the Islamic economy sector, and transfer the experience of Dubai and the UAE to the creation of an integrated Islamic economic strategy in Tatarstan. This year at Kazan Summit 2022 , UAE Minister of the Economy H.E. Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri was among the guests of honor, symbolizing mutual interest in deepening connections between Abu Dhabi and Tatarstan in this area, despite the wider geopolitical turbulence that has impacted Russia’s economic situation.

Finally, relations between Bahrain and Tatarstan have been developing for some time on Islamic banking and finance. Shaykh Abdulrahman bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Khalifa, Chairman of the Supreme Islamic Affairs Council of Bahrain, attended the 2022 Kazan Summit as a guest of honour. As he commented during my interview with him (in Arabic) in January 2022:

“The main interests of the two sides lie in the presence of many economic and commercial possibilities in the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Republic of Tatarstan…[and] the Kazan Summit…[contributes] to the presentation of economic and commercial possibilities and opportunities available for cooperation, which are currently being studied by the concerned authorities in the two countries.”

Relations between Tatarstan and Qatar have proven active, prior the Ukraine conflict—though Tatar-Qatar ties have not expanded to include the field of Islamic finance. Rustam Minnikhanov visited Qatar on an official visit and met with Shaykh Tamim Al-Thani on 8 December 2015. The two discussed economic projects, including cooperation in the oil and IT fields, along with enhancing trade and economic collaboration. Despite cooperation in other areas and industries, the coordination between Doha and Tatarstan in the Islamic banking sector has yet to develop.

Limitations and Opportunities

Despite numerous discussions with Russian regions, including the aforementioned consultations with Tatarstan, the Gulf states do not invest in Russia and its regions directly, but only through the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which manages $10 billion in capital. At the time of writing, both the Qatar Investment Authority and the Emirati Mubadala Investment Company have paused their investments in Russia. Even prior to the Ukraine situation, the raft of post-Crimea sanctions against Russia have remained a significant challenge to Russia’s efforts to acquire FDI.

Domestically, Russia should pass legislation to better support Islamic banking and economic practices. Existing Russian laws do not yet accommodate all the aspects of Islamic economic activity. During my fieldwork in Kazan, Aydar Shagimardanov, the President of the Association of Russian Muslim Entrepreneurs, stressed the importance of the inner legal consciousness of a Muslim businessman:

“We do not have such an understanding of Islamic banking in our legislation, and the Islamic bank in the full format in which it operates in Islamic countries and some foreign countries, cannot exist with us [in Russia]. However, we have some…‘sprouts’ of Islamic finance that have been opening for a long time in Kazan. This is the financial house Amal, a member of our Association. We are friends with them, we have been cooperating for many years, many members of our Association just use the services of the Amal financial house. […]  But the legal consciousness of a Muslim is not yet so developed that they can completely abandon non-halal banks. And when a businessman with such an unstable sense of justice comes to Sberbank, where they can get a loan at 11%, and in the Amal financial house there is no loan, but property or equipment that interests you is bought, an extra charge is made on it and sold and given to you in instalments. That is, roughly speaking, it turns out to be 15% […]. It depends very much on the inner world, the inner level of development of the Muslim himself. [Individuals struggle to] choose between ‘more expensive’ and haram [forbidden].”

From another perspective, Western sanctions may prove to have positive effects for Gulf-Russia relations, which could be leveraged to develop Islamic banking and finance. Displaced by sanctions and unwelcome in the West, Russian oligarchs have reportedly been fleeing sanctions and hunting for houses in Dubai. This diaspora can be seen in the UAE’s “golden visa” program, which provides long-term residency for foreigners if they invest at least 10 million dirhams ($2.7 million) in a local company or investment fund. Such connections may incentivize investments between the UAE and Russia in the future. It is unclear to what extent Muslim ethnic businessmen move in the oligarchic circles of Russia and may establish themselves in the GCC states. What is clear is that such a diaspora could become another link for flourishing relations between Muslim Russia and the Gulf states, based on Islamic economic practices. Existing shared Muslim identities can only complement potential business projects, including further development of the so-called “halal lifestyle.” More generally, the movement of Russian citizens—and potentially representatives of the Russian Muslim republics—from the West to the Gulf offers further opportunities for collaboration.

Islamic banking and finance are seen as a possible vector to evade Western sanctions, or at least cushion the impact of economic restrictions in Russia. Platforms such as the Kazan Summit play a crucial role in promoting this initiative, helped along by Tatarstan’s prominence in the event and its claim to a deep-rooted Muslim identity. The question remains to what extent other factors, including the national interests of the Gulf states and their relations with the United States and other Western partners, could prove to be obstacles to progress. Internally, too, it remains to be seen whether Russia has the will and the resources to make the necessary legislative changes to enable Islamic finance to flourish. Finally, geopolitical rivalries almost certainly impact the prospects of Russia-Gulf cooperation in this area, as Gulf investors choose between sides in the current crisis (or maintain a tenuous neutrality). Assessments of political stability, economic potential, and shared interests may all come into play as today’s geopolitical competition continues to play out.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Challenging Prospects for Saudi-Iranian Talks

A fifth round of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, held in late April 2022, raised hopes that the two countries’ foreign ministers might meet to reopen their respective embassies in Riyadh and Tehran after diplomatic ties between the two capitals broke down in 2016. Despite this promising sign, however, there has still been no guarantee that Saudi Arabia and Iran can work together unless the United States commits to restoring the balance of power between them, irrespective of the recurring shifts in U.S. foreign policy from changes in administration. Recent attempts by President Joe Biden’s administration to encourage improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been perceived as falling short of ensuring an enduring peace between the two countries, even if a thaw in relations is achieved.

Overview of Saudi-Iranian Talks

Riyadh and Tehran embarked on their first round of talks in April 2021. More talks followed through February 2022. Early on in the process, Riyadh described its talks as cordial and exploratory and said that it was keen to build results with Iran. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud even confirmed that his country sought good relations with Tehran, despite his past hesitation to work with Iran.

The Saudi-Iranian talks arrived on the heels of efforts by the Biden administration to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran. The initial nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), first concluded during the Obama administration between Iran and the world powers in 2015, broke down after the Trump administration withdrew the participation of the United States. Trump then re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran in May 2018.

When the revived talks to salvage the nuclear deal failed to yield results by the end of 2021 in spite of months of tense negotiations between the world powers (Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and Iran, as well as indirect talks between Washington and Tehran in Vienna, the Saudi-Iranian talks also suffered a temporary setback. In response to the failed nuclear talks, Iran raised the stakes; it linked the prospects of peace in Yemen between the Iranian-backed Houthis and a Saudi-backed Yemeni government to a successful outcome of the nuclear talks, which would also lead to the removal of anti-Iranian sanctions.

Then in January 2022, Iran held Friday Prayer rallies across the country to condemn the Saudi-led military coalition’s war in Yemen. By February, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud suggested that the revival of a nuclear pact could be a starting point to addressing Saudi Arabia’s other issues with Iran, including its missile program and interference in the domestic affairs of neighboring Arab countries. Iran, in turn, rejected a new nuclear deal that went beyond the terms of the JCPOA. The talks have now stalled over a disagreement with the United States’ hesitation to remove the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

At the same time, the Houthis in Yemen escalated their missile and drone attacks against Saudi energy and refining facilities in March 2022. Officials in Washington claimed that Tehran enabled the attack; Tehran responded by unilaterally suspending the next round of its talks with Riyadh. The Saudi-Iranian talks resumed for their fifth round in April, but started on an acrimonious note after Tehran publicly denounced Saudi Arabia’s execution of 81 individuals—including a reported 41 Shias convicted of carrying out acts of terrorism. The executions took place as the Houthis stepped up their attacks against Saudi targets.

However, Washington may have encouraged Riyadh to stick to the talks with Tehran, as signs also emerged that pointed to possible progress in the nuclear talks. For example, Iran reported that $7 billion of its frozen assets in overseas banks could be released to help the country cope with sanctions. In addition, a two-month truce, scheduled to last from April 2 until June 2, went into effect in Yemen, promising humanitarian assistance and air routes between the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sana’a and Saudi Arabia’s allies, including Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia also secured the resignation of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, president of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, in favor of a new Presidential Leadership Council.

Finally, closer to home, Iran persuaded Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to accept a resource sharing mechanism to develop the shared Al-Dorra/Arash gas field in the Partitioned Neutral Zone, despite a longstanding Iranian failure to demarcate the eastern Gulf maritime boundaries where the field is located with its two Arab neighbors.

Will a Saudi-Iranian Partnership Last?

For now, all signs seem to suggest that Iran will continue talks with Saudi Arabia for as long as necessary to achieve some results. This also satisfies Iran, which needs Saudi Arabia to buffer the frequent tensions between Washington and Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program.

However, Saudi Arabia seems to resent playing this buffer role—particularly if Washington does not commit to upholding Saudi interests, including its desire to contain Iran’s influence in Yemen. According to former Saudi chief of intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudis felt let down by the withdrawal of U.S. support for their country in the face of looming threats, including Iran’s use of the Houthis to “destabilize Saudi Arabia,” and Washington’s refusal or inability to respond to the Houthi attacks on Saudi oil installations.

My talks with a senior Saudi royal family member also revealed concerns in Saudi Arabia that Tehran might seek to exploit. It is speculated that the war in Yemen will hasten the return of the Mahdi, a Shi’a imam believed to have gone into occultation around 941CE to return to earth to restore justice in an unknown time in the future. This talk sounds imaginary. Yet even in the Sunni countries of the Gulf region some believe in the Mahdi in the form of a savior. However, they may not so readily subscribe to the Iranian apocalyptic version of needing to expedite his return, unless provoked by Tehran.

Iranian clerics see Iran’s growing regional influence in places like Yemen as signs of this apocalyptic goal, and believe that they must recruit allies as well as sympathetic Sunnis to reach this goal. Unsurprisingly, in my conversations with Saudi policy experts, they said that they viewed previous Houthi missiles targeting Mecca in 2019 as Iranian attempts to someday control the holy city, where Muslims from around the world congregate, from where they could then advance toward the several locations where the Mahdi is expected to return, i.e., on the borders between Syria and Israel or near the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Given these deep Saudi concerns about Iranian intentions, if the United States were to withdraw from the Gulf but offer little by way of security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, the resulting tensions in the region would likely not sustain a strong partnership between Riyadh and Tehran. For now, however, since Iran needs sanctions relief, the country also welcomes outreach to Saudi Arabia.

As a sign of further compromise, Iran has also displayed a willingness to accommodate Saudi Arabia in other arenas. For example, Iran supported the recent talks between Riyadh and Baghdad to link their power grids in the same industry and markets where Iran also competes. Tehran also welcomed outreach efforts between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which occurred despite years of tensions between them, during which Iran backed the Syrian government against rebel forces backed by its Arab neighbor.

Given these complex realities, any peace to be had between Riyadh and Tehran would remain fragile unless the United States encourages a steady partnership between the two regional capitals. This support would need to continue irrespective of whether Republicans or Democrats control the White House or Congress. This condition, however, may never fully materialize. Consequently, even in the best-case scenario, it is fair to expect that Riyadh and Tehran will build only fragmented multilateral regional institutions that may not sufficiently uphold their mutual security interests. They may also fail to keep each other’s potential hegemonic ambitions in check, and would be left with limited options to engage through niche diplomacy to address some of the most pressing challenges in their ties.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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