While in 2019 tensions in the Gulf nearly came to the breaking point, 2020 may mark a turnaround (or at least a truce) in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
2019 was a rather eventful year in the Gulf, even by the standards of the region. This was especially true for the two major players, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which saw their rivalry slipping into an asymmetric conflict that threatened to cripple their strategic assets. Having realised to be standing on a slippery slope, both Tehran and Riyadh may be ready to call for a time-out in 2020.
To be sure, 2020 started – quite literally – with a bang as the United States (US) hit a convoy in Iraq killing the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds elite forces Qassem Suleimani and significantly turning up the heat between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other. However, as fears of an Iranian retaliation on US bases in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) quickly spread, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC capitals doubled down on a trend of de-escalatory rhetoric and diplomacy that started already in 2019.
Since the summer of 2019, Saudi Arabia’s staunch ally, the United Arab Emirates, saw two sabotage attacks against tankers off its coast, and the Saudis themselves faced the biggest attack ever against Saudi ARAMCO’s infrastructures: Abqaiq crude-processing plant and Khurais oil field. All of these attacks may or may not have been perpetrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, masters of plausible deniability. Iran, meanwhile, under ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions by the US – with Saudi/Emirati encouragement – is seeing its ability to project influence and harness support in neighbouring countries like Iraq or Lebanon at the centre of protests and pushbacks. Amid tensions boiling strongly under the lid, it might be a good time for all sides to freeze the tit-for-tat. The hard truths of regional geopolitics may be preventing the achievement of a win-win resolution, but they sure provide an excellent environment for a lose-lose interlude.
In fact, these last months of 2019 saw Iran, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia engage in direct and indirect message exchanges, with support from Kuwait and Oman. Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed – trusted brother of the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed – has kept his bags packed, shuffling between Tehran, Riyadh, and Muscat. Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence and (again) trusted brother of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also spent quite a lot of time in Muscat. The Omanis are working to make this tentative – and tactical – Iran-Saudi time-out fruitful for neighbouring Yemen. The country, which has been devasted by a civil war within a proxy war since 2015, may be looking at a more sustainable ceasefire in 2020, underpinned by Saudi leadership and Emirati retrenchment. Although the Iranians may decide to run interference in a direct dialogue between Riyadh and the Iran-aligned Yemeni rebels (known as Houthis), they also have reasons not to. On the one hand, the ARAMCO attack and the regional escalation attracted previously unheard harsh language from the staunchest defenders of Iran’s nuclear deal, the E3 (Germany, the United Kingdom, and France). On the other, Iran may be enticed by Dubai’s decision to quietly unfreeze hundreds of millions of Iranian assets and resume some limited exchanges.
In parallel to these fragile discussions, the Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are also trying to address the crisis pitting the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Manama trio against fellow emirate Doha. This intra-GCC crisis, dating back to June 2017, almost broke the GCC irreparably, with Doha posed under political boycott and economic embargo by its neighbours, on which it depended for the import of basic goods (i.e. food) and the export of its main resource (liquefied natural gas). Kuwait has taken the lead on this front, passing letters for years between Riyadh and Doha, and strongly advocating for mending fences. Saudi Arabia has finally accepted the Kuwaiti advice and softened its stance on Qatar. Qatar welcomed the change. And yet, having weathered both the embargo and the boycott – also thanks to a renewed partnership with Turkey and a pragmatic approach to Iran – it doesn’t really agree with its opponents about who should compromise on what. Much like the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, the détente with Qatar looks just as tactical, temporary, and tentative.
Notwithstanding all the usual caveats that us analysts like to put in the way of a smooth argument, 2020 may indeed be a less volatile year between Iran and the GCC. The basic reasons for that are of two kinds. The first one is that Gulf players will have much to focus on domestically. Dubai will be hosting the EXPO, on which it has invested substantially as an opportunity to re-launch its economy and, especially, restore the glitter on its once blindingly shining model. Saudi Arabia will reach the first deadline of its National Transformation Program, the implementation document of Vision 2030 and, hence, will undergo a check on benchmarks and objectives achieved. The Kingdom will also host the G20, an event that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants to use to put his own – personal – seat among the big world leaders. Watched since the beginning with a mixture of interest and concern by other world leaders, Mohammad bin Salman’s image in the arena of international politics has been severely tarnished by his taste for adventurist policies with a side of destabilization and disruption. He may be willing to contain those to consolidate his position on the global stage. Oman and Kuwait might have to face a watershed transition of power at the leadership level. Finally, the Iranian regime needs strategic room to focus on containing the vocal and large-scale domestic protests that are shaking the country.
Last but not least, 2020 is what many in the Gulf call the “silly year”: i.e., the year of the Presidential elections in the United States (US). Despite its consistent retrenchment from the wider region, the US is still the most impactful player on both shores of the Gulf.
As shown by the January raid that killed Suleimani, it is a year of particular unpredictability in US policies. It remains to be seen if the diplomatic efforts exerted by Riyadh and other GCC countries with Tehran will be sufficient to protect them from an Iranian attack against American interests. Meanwhile the electoral campaign will continue.
Should Donald Trump be re-elected, the 2020 time-out would be rapidly put into question. Should Americans elect a Democratic President, or should Trump get impeached, then all bets are off. Freezing tensions until the fog dissipates in Washington seems a rather sensible option. What remains especially hard to foresee is if – in this interregnum – the new European Commission, which promised to be ‘geopolitical’, will manage to get Europe off its bench and give it a whistle to act as a referee in the 2020 Gulf time-out amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.