Can Saudi Arabia and Iran really be friends?

Can Saudi Arabia and Iran really be friends?

Few rivalries in the world today are as bitter and bloody as the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For more than forty years, they have vied for sectarian and strategic influence across the Middle East, waging proxy wars that have wreaked havoc in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

But now it appears the two old foes might be looking for ways to patch things up.


After initially denying a Financial Times scoop about secret bilateral talks held in Iraq last month, the foreign ministries of both countries now acknowledge that yes, Tehran and Riyadh are gingerly exploring a detente.

In fact, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, recently called for "good and special relations with Iran".

That's a hell of a change of heart since 2018, when he said that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "makes Hitler look good."

So why might they be looking to make nice now?

Washington is one reason. In a dangerous world, the Saudis are worried about the Biden administration. "Saudi Arabia can no longer expect the same backing that they had under Trump," says Ahmed Al-Omran, editor of the (very good) Riyadh Bureau newsletter. Since coming to office, Smokin' Joe has cut support for Saudi Arabia's ruinous military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, chided Riyadh over its lousy human rights record, and launched a full-bore diplomatic effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal — something the Saudis always opposed.

Given Biden's broader push to reduce American involvement in the Middle East, the Saudis might be keen to find a better modus vivendi with their main regional rivals. The Saudi overtures to Tehran come amid fresh thaws with Syria and Turkey as well.

Meanwhile, from Iran's perspective, easing tensions with the Saudis is one way to mollify Riyadh's opposition to a revived nuclear accord. What's more, al-Omran says, it could open the way to broader economic ties with the Arab world after a new deal is done. (Israel's misgivings about a new nuclear deal, of course, may be harder to overcome.)

Rivalries are expensive. Nobody knows for sure how much Iran spends on its proxies and government allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, and Yemen, to say nothing of the massive support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad — but it's expensive. Most estimates come to about $15 billion a year.

That's no small amount for an economy crippled by US sanctions, and many Iranians know it. Back in 2018, during mass protests over corruption and the economy, some marchers called out Tehran for spending on foreign proxies rather than Iranian needs: "No Gaza, No Lebanon, No Syria," they chanted, "My Life for Iran!"

Saudi Arabia, for its part, might also like to spend less money on defense as it looks to modernize its economy as part of the Crown Prince's grand plan to wean the country off of oil revenues. In fact, Riyadh has already been cutting its defense spending for several years. This year, arms outlays are set to drop nearly 4 percent. Better relations with Iran would ease the pressure to buy more guns.

And green economies are bad for black gold. Is it a stretch to say global warming is part of this story too? Maybe. Neither country has openly put climate change at the center of its policy. But both can certainly see the writing on the wall elsewhere: as governments around the world cut carbon emissions, the salad days for oil exporters are coming to an end. Saudi Arabia and Iran each stand to lose around 40 percent of their revenue by the year 2030. That means new priorities have to be set: and sectarian hate is expensive.

Still, let's not get carried away. These are cautious and preliminary talks between two bitter rivals who have detested each other for more than forty years. There is a ton of baggage in the relationship — religious, strategic, economic — that won't be easy to get past. Any progress will be halting and fragile.

But every path to detente starts somewhere. Perhaps this one begins in Baghdad?

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This week, the US Senate passed the so-called Endless Frontier Act, a $250 billion investment in development of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the manufacture of semiconductors, and other tech-related sectors. The goal is to harness the combined power of America's public and private sectors to meet the tech challenges posed by China.

In its current form, this is the biggest diversion of public funds into the private sector to achieve strategic goals in many decades. The details of this package, and of the Senate vote, say a lot about US foreign-policy priorities and this bill's chances of becoming law.

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What do America's policies around the world mean for jobs, the economy, and the future of the country's future? This Tuesday, June 15. at 11 am ET, GZERO Media presents a a live discussion on trade, immigration, and how domestic issues like racism and deep partisan divides impact America's standing in the world. Our event, which is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, is free and open to the public. Please register to attend.

Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, will moderate the conversation with:

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  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group and GZERO Media
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
  • Miriam Sapiro, Managing Director, Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC) and Former Acting and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative
  • Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor, New America

Special appearance by Governor Thomas H. Kean, Chairman of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 | 11 am - 12:30 pm ET

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Listen: Is there a path to democracy for Europe's last dictatorship, Belarus? Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discusses her hopes and fears for the country with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World Podcast. President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a tight grip on power in Belarus for the last 26 years and rigged the results of his last election which led to widespread protest and unrest in his country, though few consequences globally. But will he now be held accountable after diverting a flight between two European capitals to arrest a dissident journalist? And just how close are he and Vladimir Putin?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Nigeria's federal government earlier this month blocked Twitter from the country's mobile networks, after the social media company deleted a controversial post from President Muhammadu Buhari's account. The move by Africa's largest and most populous economy comes as many governments around the world are putting increased pressure on social media companies, with serious implications for free speech.

So what actually happened in Nigeria, and how does it fit in with broader trends on censorship and social media regulation? Eurasia Group analysts Amaka Anku and Tochi Eni-Kalu explain.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

What's the significance of the US-China bill, competition bill that passed the Senate earlier this week?

Well, the bill is a major investment in American technology, research and development, semiconductor manufacturing, and it's designed to push back on the China Made in 2025 push that lawmakers have become increasingly worried about in recent years. The opinion in Washington has shifted from seeing China as a strategic competitor to a strategic rival. And you're seeing what's now likely to be one of the only bipartisan bills in Congress now pushing back on that. Significant money for semiconductors in this bill, even though some of it was set aside for automotive purposes. That money's not going to come online fast enough to really make a difference to the current global semiconductor shortage, but it will help build up US long-term spending capacity and manufacturing capacity in semiconductors.

Other aspects of the bill, banned the application TikTok from going on government devices out of security concerns, created new sanctions authorities around Xinjiang and Hong Kong for human rights abuses, and mandated a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which is probably going to happen anyway once the Biden administration is able to align with its allies. Let the athletes play. Don't let any high level delegations go. This is probably the only bipartisan bill to happen this year, yet still, half of Senate Republicans voted against it because they were opposed to the kind of industrial policy they think this represents, but it does show the area where there's bipartisan agreement in a city that's very, very divided right now. China is the bad guy and Congress is moving in that direction.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What do you expect from President Biden's first European trip since taking office?

Well, first, it will be sort of reconnecting with Europe, reconnecting with the European Union, with NATO, with the partners in the G7, and going really from the initial message, which was, "we are back," to a more concrete message, "here is what we could potentially do together." That is the expectations. And let's see how it turns out.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

When President Biden and President Putin meet, will cybersecurity will be a key issue that they discuss?

Now, I'm sure that there will be many thorny issues on the table. But after American fingers pointed to Russia and hold it responsible for the SolarWinds hack, it's likely. Criminals in Russia were also not hindered when they held the Colonial Pipeline Company ransom through a ransomware attack. And really, when journalists and opposition leaders cannot speak a single critical word without being caught, how come cybercriminals can act with impunity in Russia? So the need for prevention and accountability really is significant. And I hope the President Biden can push and persuade Putin to change the confrontational and aggressive course that he is on.

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET

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