Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi-Iranian deadlock continues

It is unlikely that the Syria talks will succeed or the price of oil will increase unless Iran and Saudi Arabia settle their differences, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Most of the leaders of Muslim countries attended last week’s 30th summit meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, including the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Iran.

These countries have had no diplomatic relations since Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked by angry mobs last January, with the two nations being engaged in a kind of larger proxy regional war.

The tensions have been affecting international policy as well as the region’s economy. Even more than prioritising the peace talks on Syria and Yemen, there is now an urgent need to make peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

While many observers had hopes that during the summit meeting in Istanbul King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran might seize the chance to meet on the side-lines of the conference, these came to nothing.

When the heads of the Islamic countries gathered for a group photograph, King Salman walked past President Rouhani and neither man made any move to greet the other. The next day the Arab and Iranian media began speculating about who had ignored whom, the king of Saudi Arabia or the Iranian president.

As the first casualty of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Syria peace talks that started in Geneva this week may be jeopardised. The Syrian opposition has threatened to leave the talks since the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not been decided and a transitional government agreed because of pressures from Russia and Iran.

Iran could use its influence on Al-Assad if it were willing to cooperate with the international community and the United Nations in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, but this will not happen unless Saudi Arabia shows flexibility, commentators say.

Iran is looking for economic improvements in the wake of the nuclear deal with the Western powers, allowing it to gain access to its blocked assets abroad and boost its economy by increasing its oil production to levels seen before the sanctions.

However, in an unstable market in which prices are extremely low due to Saudi and the United States’ rival efforts to control production, Iran’s re-entry to the oil market is quite another issue.

Saudi Arabia could reduce its production to make room for Iran, but it is unlikely to do so, given the verbal war between the two countries. When the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked by angry Iranians upset over the execution of Shia leader Bagher Al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, Iran never officially apologised to Saudi Arabia.

The attackers of the Saudi missions were arrested, but none of them has appeared in court or been sentenced and no one has apologised. 

In the summit meeting’s final communique, the members of the OIC condemned Iran for the acts of violence against the Saudi diplomatic missions. The statement upset Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, who did not attend the final ceremony of the meeting.

On 17 April, when representatives of the large oil-producing countries gathered in Doha to discuss the possible freezing of production in order to stabilise the oil market, Iran refused to send an envoy.

It is not interested in freezing its output levels until these reach four million barrels of oil a day (bpd), the post-sanctions quota, and Iran hence refused to join the other producers meeting in Qatar.

However, oil policy is now so influenced by politics that OPEC cartel members are not as influential as they were years ago. In the absence of Iran at the meeting in Doha, Saudi Arabia blocked the deal to freeze output levels.

Oil prices dropped on 18 April after the talks failed, amid Saudi demands that Iran not increase its production which Iran’s oil minister refused.

It is unlikely that the Syria talks will succeed or the price of oil will increase unless Iran and Saudi Arabia escape from the current deadlock.

The events in Doha showed that the Saudis are unlikely to agree to anything in the absence of Iranian participation, from oil talks to peace talks on Syria. Who will now be ready to take the first step and greet the other?

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