A Light Breeze of Change in the Middle East

April 17, 2023

On March 10, 2023, the “Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran” was issued in Beijing. The Joint Statement started with a reference “to the noble initiative of President Xi Jinping and China’s support for developing good neighborly relations between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic”. It then mentioned the gratitude of both parties to the Republic of Iraq and the Sultanate of Oman for hosting rounds of dialogue that took place between both sides during the years 2021-2022. The two sides also expressed their appreciation and gratitude to China for hosting and sponsoring the talks. Getting credit for peace-making in the Middle East is a noteworthy achievement.

The Joint Statement announced that an agreement has been reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which includes the resumption of diplomatic relations between them, and the re-opening of their embassies within two months. [i]

On April 6, 2023, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart Mr. Hossein Amir Abdollahian also met in Beijing and issued a bilateral statement that confirmed the earlier decision to reopen embassies. The statement also referred to the agreement to explore ways of boosting bilateral relations in the fields of economy, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports, and youth and expanding official exchanges to help achieve that. [ii]

On April 10, 2023, Saudi officials were in Yemen for negotiations with the Houthis as part of international efforts to find a settlement to Yemen’s nine-year conflict. Representatives of the Middle East’s prominent peace-maker Oman also took part in the talks to bridge the gap between different sides. The meeting was followed by the release of 900 detainees from all sides. Unfortunately, there is no quick path to end the conflict and the humanitarian drama in the country but this could at least be a new and more realistic “first step”.

“The Jeddah Communique: A Joint Statement Between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” issued on July 15, 2022, at the end of President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia said:

“The two sides underscored the need to further deter Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through its armed proxies, and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

And last week, Senator Lindsey Graham, who was an outspoken critic of the Crown Prince after the Khashoggi murder, held what he called a “very productive” meeting with him.

After all, as Seneca once said, “Only time can heal what reason cannot.” For the Middle East, one may add, “sometimes sooner than expected”.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was off to a most unfortunate start on the global scene as a result of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. This will haunt him for decades. Nonetheless, he is young and appears determined to open up his country and connect it with the rest of the world.

His message on Saudi Arabia’s Vision for the future says, “Our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.” [iii]

Having served as Türkiye’s ambassador to the Kingdom where I enjoyed the generous Saudi hospitality, I see this statement as a cautious declaration of intent to transform Saudi Arabia. Because the Kingdom, by virtue of being the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines, has been an ultra-conservative country and a closed society intolerant of differences. Coupled with authoritarian rule, these have made Saudi Arabia an unlikely destination for visitors, with the exception of Moslems going there for Hajj and Umrah.

But the Crown Prince has launched a campaign to modernize the country and reduce the reliance on oil revenue. Moreover, he stripped the power of the mutawa, the notorious religious police, and women were issued driver’s licenses for the first time. Additionally, movie theaters and golf courses were built, international music festivals were held, and tourist visas became available to visitors from many countries. The latest joint bilateral Iran-Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministers’ joint statement refers to resuming flights, carrying out reciprocal visits of official delegations and the private sector, and facilitating the issuance of visas for nationals of the two countries. An ambitious agenda that no doubt will be implemented with caution.

The foregoing does not mean that Saudi Arabia would become a larger Dubai in just a few years. Neither does it mean that democracy might blossom there in the foreseeable future, no. But even so, these are significant developments. It appears that the Kingdom’s de facto ruler and likely future king has a full grasp of what his country has lost by not taking a progressist path into the future. His would be a tough balancing act between the aspirations of younger generations and the mindset of the country’s ultra-conservatives. He should be encouraged.

Fortunately for the Middle East, there is more than the Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation. Last week, Qatar and Bahrain decided to resume their diplomatic ties. Syrian and Saudi foreign ministers met in Riyadh and discussed efforts to find “a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves Syria’s unity, security, stability, Arab identity, and territorial integrity while also serving the interests of its brotherly people”. [iv] Syria is likely to return to the Arab League in the not-too-distant future. But the implications for the region of Israel’s being under extreme political stress under a far-right government remain to be seen. 

In other developments, Iran is about to join the China–Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Saudi Arabia—a traditional ally of the US—has also decided to join the SCO as a dialogue partner. This can only boost Beijing’s regional influence.

Recent regional developments and oil production cuts outlined by eight key OPEC countries also have a “message to the US/West” dimension.

Hopefully, the Middle East is finally coming to think of writing its own “peace-making story” after decades of external interventions, every one of which violated the so-called “rules-based international order”.

As for Türkiye, the AKP government has been busy trying to put behind a decade of disastrous and confrontational foreign policy. Relations with Israel have been raised to the ambassadorial level but that is just a small step and a lot more needs to be done. It seems that relations with Egypt and the Gulf states which also suffered because of AKP’s unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood would also take time to heal. The reality is that these countries have not changed their policies. They are exactly where they were a decade ago. But it has finally dawned upon the AKP government that a foreign policy based purely on an aggressive ideology leads nowhere. Rebuilding trust takes time.[v] Egyptian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Ankara last week and declared their determination to take relations to a higher level. We Turks need to remember why the relations suffered such a setback in the first place.

Considering Ankara’s central role in the regime change project in Syria, repairing relations with Damascus will take more time, and President Assad, like many others, is waiting for the Turkish elections.

What is going on in Syria for more than a decade is a proxy war. The West dreads Syrian refugees heading toward their borders because for Western countries “cultural differences” always prevail over humanitarian considerations. But they can at least recognize the devastation and human suffering in Syria and take a step to help rebuild peace. For a change, they can join a peace-making project.

This is what Professor Joshua Landis recently said in an article titled, “US should encourage Arab, Turkish normalization with Syria”:

“Failure to do so will only undermine America’s regional position, not to mention its position in Syria. None of the countries neighboring Syria want U.S. troops to remain there: not Iraq, not Turkey, and not the Syrian government itself, all of which claim to be preparing to raise the costs of the U.S. occupation…

“The U.S. has said that it must remain in Syria to fight ISIS, but the day when the Syrian government can assume responsibility for this task is approaching. Washington should begin preparing for that eventuality. The government has suppressed ISIS cells in its major cities and 60 percent of the country that it controls…

“ISIS survives in Syria largely because the country is divided into three zones, each ruled by a government at war with the others.” [vi]

It is high time for the West to finally decide whether ISIS is indeed a problem or a convenience.


[i] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202303/t20230311_11039241.html

[ii] https://www.spa.gov.sa/w1885065?lang=en&newsid=2441661

[iii] https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/v2030/leadership-message/

[iv] https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2443550

[v] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2022/02/21/turkeys-diplomatic-flurry/

[vi] https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2023/04/07/us-should-encourage-arab-turkish-normalization-with-syria/?ct=t(RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN)&mc_cid=c0a17a69ed&mc_eid=cca9360155


About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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