Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaging in talks for several months, no one was prepared for the dramatic announcement that the two countries would resume diplomatic ties. The international community was even less prepared for the fact that the Saudi-Iran deal was brokered by China. While the rapprochement between the two traditional rivals in the Gulf is objectively positive, and had been hailed as an epochal turning point in the region by world leaders; there are concerns about what the agreement – and the negotiations that led to it – reveals about the declining influence of the United States, and by extension, Europe, in the Middle East.
The Biden Administration’s response to the announcement was conspicuously muted, with the US president saying good relations are “better for everybody”, and White House Spokesman John Kirby somewhat sheepishly assuring journalists that the US had been kept “in the loop” regarding the historic talks between the Saudis and Iranians.
To put this blasé response in perspective: the United States has been the major mediator in the Middle East for at least the past 50 years; they have no fewer than 18 military bases and around 40,000 troops permanently located in the region. Just last week, US officials unveiled a new set of sanctions against Iran. A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, said earlier this month that “Iran remains the leading source of instability in the region and is a threat to the United States and our partners.” Yet, the United States was simply “in the loop” on negotiations?
It is undeniably worrying that deals are being struck without American or Western participation involving three undemocratic regimes to reshape the landscape of power in one of the most strategic regions in the world. This is particularly true when two of those regimes – China and Iran -- take openly aggressive postures towards the West, and the third – Saudi Arabia – has become increasingly indifferent to American and European interests.
While of course everyone would like to see regional tensions subside, we must ask ourselves what fruits can be borne from the collaboration of three authoritarian regimes with notorious human rights records when there is no democratic moderator?
I have long warned that an authoritarian nexus was being created between repressive states around the world, building a parallel and competing political jurisdiction outside the rule of law, excluding Western governments, and averse to democratic values and human rights. Heading Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, I have seen how countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, for example, circumvent or manipulate international protocols and institutions to pursue dissidents abroad, or to punish foreign citizens over petty financial disputes through abuse of Interpol; jurisdiction shopping for countries willing to comply with illegitimate extradition demands. I have supported clients detained in countries at the request of Gulf states or North Korea for alleged offences that would not pass muster in any Western court of law. I have seen how the UAE shunned diplomatic norms to coordinate a joint attack with India against an American-flagged private vessel in international waters by trading favours with the Indian prime minister over the phone.
By cultivating this network of willing renegade regimes, these countries – like Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia – are building a support system that insulates them from Western influence. This can only further deteriorate the human rights conditions prevailing under each participating government. It is an informal alliance of impunity.
In my work, exposing abuses in these countries to international, and particularly Western scrutiny, is often the only means for securing justice for victims; so, it is deeply concerning that the West is becoming increasingly side-lined. If the United States and Europe allow their importance to diminish in the Middle East, with China surpassing them in relevance; no amount of Western outrage over human rights abuses, torture, false imprisonment, and wrongful convictions will have an impact.
The US, the UK, and Europe cannot afford to simply be “in the loop” when it comes to the Middle East, particularly when those countries are hard-selling themselves to the West as destinations for investment and tourism. It is simply too dangerous for Western visitors if their home countries have no standing in the eyes of the Gulf States to prevent abuse.
We can applaud the Iran-Saudi agreement as an historic turning point in the region, but what we will be hailing, if we are being honest, is the retreat of Western influence in the Middle East, and that is more ominous than inspiring.