A game changer.

THE Middle East's security landscape could be transformed by an unanticipated development that took place earlier this month. Long-standing regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore bilateral relations after seven years of bitter confrontation and a diplomatic hiatus. The deal was signed in Beijing, which mediated the agreement.

In the joint trilateral statement, the two countries pledged to respect the 'sovereignty of states' and 'non-interference in the internal affairs of states'. They agreed to revive their 2001 security cooperation pact and renew their general cooperation agreement of 1998, which ranges over trade, economy and investment.

The breakthrough followed several days of talks in China, which were preceded by two key high-level visits - by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February 2023 and Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to Saudi Arabia in December 2022. These summit-level meetings and Saudi-Iranian exchanges in the region laid the necessary groundwork for the March 10 agreement.

The thaw in Saudi-Iran relations is a potential game changer for the region - provided it gathers steam and lasts. It has far-reaching implications for the Middle East and beyond, which could pave the way for a more stable and peaceful region. Both countries had strong motivations to seek detente.

Iran's interest was to break out of the diplomatic isolation imposed on it by the US-led West. It was also deeply apprehensive about the likelihood of Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations being established at Washington's prodding and behest. That would have deepened Tehran's isolation and gravely aggravated its security challenges.

The Saudi motive emanated from its security anxieties over escalation in tensions with Iran. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has faced several attacks including on its oil facilities and infrastructure. Over half of the kingdom's oil production was affected by a missile and drone attack on its oil-processing installations in 2019, for which Riyadh blamed Tehran.

For Riyadh, reduced tensions with Iran aims to address these security threats. Other factors have also been at work. America's diminished diplomatic and military footprint in the Middle East as it switched focus to its strategic priority of countering China as well as strained relations between the Biden administration and the Saudi leadership seemed to convince Riyadh that Washington was no longer a reliable or consistent ally, much less a...

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