For the end of April, the end of the month of Ramadan, King Salman of Saudi Arabia has invited the president of Iran, Ibrahim Raishi, to Riyadh. Together, the two leaders will celebrate the normalization of bilateral relations. The sudden rapprochement of warring regional powers has ramifications that extend beyond the Middle East. The fact that China has methodized normalization is sensational and symptomatic of the tectonic shifts taking place in international politics. Until now, China has operated as a dominant economic partner. Overnight, Beijing advanced and became a central political player in the Middle East. China’s diplomatic triumph is a blow to the US in a region of the world long considered Washington’s exclusive sphere of influence.

The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran creates the conditions for fundamental political changes in the region. In recent years, enmity between Sunni and Shiite countries has fueled violence on several fronts: The rivalry has fueled instability in Iraq, Lebanon, and most notably in Yemen and Syria. For the Saudis and their allies, the containment of Iran has been the most important foreign policy objective. This in turn created the basis for the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and some Arab states. Meanwhile, a strategic review is taking place in Saudi Arabia. Instead of relying solely on America as a traditional protective power, the Saudis see themselves as a regional power seeking strategic autonomy. The fear of getting involved in a war between Israel and Iran through too close ties to the US is a major reason current turn of Saudi politics.

We are already seeing signs of de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and Tehran in Yemen. Just a few weeks ago it would have been unthinkable, but now a high-ranking delegation from Saudi Arabia met with the leadership of the Tehran-backed Houthis. Hopes are growing that the ceasefire will lead to lasting peace.

The role of Syria

We are also seeing political mobility in Syria. There, the political situation is even more confused than in Yemen due to the military involvement of the US and Russia. Iran has supported the Assad regime from the beginning. Saudi Arabia has been one of the main supporters of the Syrian opposition for a long time. This equation has changed. Saudi Arabia is now the driving force behind the normalization of the regime’s relations with the Arab world. The restoration of the Syrian dictator is expected to culminate at the Arab League summit to be held in the Saudi capital Riyadh in May.

Russia has played a key role in Syria since its military intervention in 2015. For Moscow, Assad remains its most important ally in the Arab world, keeping him in power a central goal for Putin. To achieve this, Russian diplomacy is seeking an arrangement between Damascus, Tehran and Ankara. The relevant consultations between the four parties have been held at different levels for months. Damascus insists on the country’s territorial integrity and the withdrawal of Turkish troops, Ankara, for its part, demands the neutralization of Kurdish fighters and the return of Syrian refugees. A quick resolution of the various is not on the horizon. However different the political initiatives of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the subject of Syria are, they have two important points in common. The Syrian dictator plays a central role in the plans of both countries. And secondly: The two multilateral initiatives are taking place without any involvement of the West.

In this context, an initiative of the Greek government is noteworthy: according to information on April 21, senior representatives of the EU member states dealing with Syria are expected to meet in Athens with the special envoy of the United Nations, Geir Petersen. The meeting is an important addition to Athens’ active diplomacy in the Middle East, which has gained new momentum after 2019. In recent years, Athens has managed to put its relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on a new footing, as and with Israel and Egypt. With the Syria initiative, Athens takes on a new expanded role offering – at best – its services as a bridge between the EU and the Syrians. The intention is laudable, but the chances of the initiative having a political impact on the ground are slim. The West and Europe play virtually no role in Syria. The Russians, the Iranians and their new friends in Saudi Arabia are now setting the tone there.

Dr. Ronald Maynardous is a political analyst and commentator and Principal Researcher of ELIAMEP. In the mid-90s he was director of the Greek editorial office of Deutsche Welle.