Saudi-Iran Trade and Iranian Concessions Can Lead to Peace | Opinion

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) recently called for "good relations" with Iran, to help push the Middle East toward prosperity and growth. Iran responded by welcoming Saudi Arabia's "change of tone" to discuss a "new chapter" in relations.

This is in stark contrast to policies of the pre-MBS era, when the Kingdom would not communicate with such an "extremist" regime—where meeting points between Riyadh and Tehran were "nearly absent." At the time, Iran's role as the bad boy of the region seemed set.

MBS' diplomatic abilities, built on engaging with opponents and aligning interests with them, should not be underestimated. In 2018, he led the Gulf in rapprochement with Israel, proclaiming that the Jewish state has "the right to have their own land." In January, he ended a four year blockade of Qatar with a single meeting, and embraced Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. In recent weeks, he oversaw a similar process with Turkey, resulting in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesperson this week confirming that Turkey "respects" the Saudi court decision on—and implicitly, the closure of—journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing.

The Iran relationship may prove the most difficult to heal. Tehran has a long track record of supporting what MBS called "outlaw militias," and there is a certain amount of geopolitical, historical and even sectarian intractability to Iran-Saudi rivalry. But rivalry is not the same as enmity.

There is a lack of a publicly known roadmap to restoring relations between the two neighbors. Such a solution is simple: trade and investment. This is likely what the crown prince was referring to when he cited Saudi interests in Iran, and Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia.

The ultimate aim for the two countries' societies, economies and future is to be so interdependent that conflict would be unthinkable—that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the temptation for Iran to continue in its 30 year tradition of exporting extremism and instability.

There is no reason why Iran cannot join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Gulf Union that Saudi Arabia has supported for years. A Saudi-Iran free trade zone would be the best guarantee of mutual respect and stability.

MBS
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

This would fit with one of MBS' flagship policy goals—to make the Middle East "the new Europe." As a young, dynamic leader, MBS isn't saddled with the same expectations that an older generation may have of the region, or the previous Saudi norm of fighting fire with fire. A keen student of history, he is all too aware that previously feuding neighbors in Europe have found peace, prosperity and global political clout through the European Union.

This is an opportune moment. Much of the Middle East is poised—thanks to robust, early lockdown measures and high vaccination rates—to be one of the regions that comes out of the pandemic first.

Increased economic opportunities would also allow Iran's regime to save face by declaring victory, while quietly ceasing their support of terrorist groups—particularly the Houthis—and winding down its nuclear program.

All this may be difficult to imagine for some. Cynics will see support for expansionism and extremism as hardwired into Iran's regime and governance structure, and no one is realistically talking about regime change in Tehran.

But there are different voices in the Iranian establishment, and many of them will be pressuring leadership into a more constructive role in the region and the world. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to MBS last year, hoping to partner with him as part of his presidential campaign and proposing ways to end the war in Yemen.

This would ultimately be a return to the historical norm. Westerners talk of the Arabian Gulf or the Persian Gulf, but this is the same place. The Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and their Persian neighbors have centuries of inter-marriage, trade and cooperation. The last couple of decades since the Iranian revolution are a blip in history—a blip that both sides must move past.

With leaders like MBS who are unafraid of discarding the received wisdom for pragmatism and reconciliation, and who are happy to fill the void left by U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, it is more than possible.

In a region built on trade, commerce and investment, this could be the way out of conflict, too.

Mohammed Alsherebi, known as MAS, is a business personality and advisor to global leaders on strategy and investment in the Middle East. He tweets at @MASNotes.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.