Iran and Saudi Arabia Formally End Diplomatic Rupture

Saudi Arabia and Iran exchanged ambassadors, formally ending a seven-year diplomatic rupture between the two Persian Gulf powers that had roiled the oil-exporting region.

(Bloomberg) — Saudi Arabia and Iran exchanged ambassadors, formally ending a seven-year diplomatic rupture between the two Persian Gulf powers that had roiled the oil-exporting region.

Saudi Arabia’s new envoy, Abdullah Al-Enezi, said upon his arrival in Tehran Tuesday that he would seek to “bolster relations and intensify contacts and meetings between the kingdom and Iran in order to move to a more hospitable space,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Al-Enezi’s arrival was synchronized with Iran’s dispatch of its new envoy to Riyadh, Alireza Enayati.

The two nations have largely been at odds since Shiite Islamists seized power in Iran in 1979, their rivalry for leadership of the region and the Muslim world morphing into proxy wars in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and more recently Yemen.

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Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore a friendly government after Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured a swath of the country, including the capital Sanaa.

The campaign devastated Yemen but failed to dislodge the Houthis, who retaliated with rocket and drone attacks on oil infrastructure deep inside the kingdom. 

Prince Mohammed’s desire to neutralize regional threats to his grand economic transformation plan — known as Vision 2030 — pushed him to restore ties with Tehran earlier this year, under a Chinese-brokered deal. The agreement has helped calm the fighting in Yemen, improve ties between the two rivals and ease broader tensions in the Middle East.

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“What happened in the past are lessons that we learn from and use to build the future,” Prince Mohammed told Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian when he visited the Saudi port city of Jeddah last month.

Iran and Saudi Arabia were among six nations invited last month to join the economic grouping known as BRICS. 

Their cooperation is moving beyond politics, with the two talking about expanding business and trade ties. 

On Monday, the Asian Football Confederation announced that Iranian and Saudi soccer clubs would play against each other on a home-and-away basis — instead of in neutral countries — for the first time since the countries severed ties in 2016. That was after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Soccer superstars Karim Benzema, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo now play for Saudi clubs and could travel to Iran for AFC Champions League matches. Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr will face Persepolis FC in Tehran on Sept. 19.

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Saudi-Iranian collaboration on the “will elevate the standing of regional countries in the regional and global equations and restrict the possibility of foreign interference,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday.

Despite the new spirit of goodwill, there remains a lot of mistrust fueled by decades of animosity. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states still view Iran’s efforts to extend its influence and reach from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean via countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as a threat to their national security.

Iran is similarly wary of the deepening ties between Gulf Arab states and Israel. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates formally recognized Israel in 2020 and the US is pushing for normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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“Things won’t become normal overnight,” said Hesham Al-Ghannam, Senior Research Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, referring to the Iranian-Saudi deal from March. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But there’s a genuine historic opportunity to move the region away from perpetual confrontation and instability.”

(Updates with cooperation in business and sports.)

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