THE Yemeni civil war is now in its seventh year. Last month, two long-time foes – Saudi Arabia and Iran – held secret talks in Baghdad to discuss and address, among others, the Yemeni conflict and its associated humanitarian crisis, and the issue of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

Their rivalry has fuelled regional conflicts from Syria to Lebanon, with both sides aiding – financially and in terms of muscle – their proxies. Each also accuses the other of backing wars and destabilising the region. We should always expect these two regional superpowers (Riyadh-Tehran ) to shape the region’s geopolitics in the years to come.

The “secret” talks took place against changes in the United States foreign policy under President Joe Biden and his administration’s signal that it is ready to “pull out” of the region. In April, the Biden administration suspended sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a bid to end the American involvement in the Yemeni war.

Washington has also resumed nuclear talks with Tehran with a major focus on how to end the harsh economic sanctions against Iran and return to the terms of the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The Saudi-Iran talks among key intelligence officers and government officials signal a start that both regional powers must start dealing with conflicts directly and can no longer rely on Washington’s help. Although Riyadh remains suspicious about Tehran’s nuclear plans, the Baghdad talks could encourage both parties to explore future diplomatic dialogues, especially to end the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

If anything, nation-states that deal with Saudi Arabia and Iran should steer clear of the regional superpower rivalry. If the US versus China economic rivalry has taught us anything, it is that we must not get entangled as smaller nation-states tend to lose out, politically and economically, should these major powers find rapprochement in the future.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are both important trading partners for Malaysia, albeit in different industries and sectors. A bilateral effort towards one foe must be extended to the other foe, in which Malaysia must learn to balance out the differences and draw out similarities in order to benefit from the bilateral relations with both countries.

If Malaysia has learned anything under the previous Pakatan Harapan administration, it is that we must not “favour” one foe over the other. The KL Summit held in 2019 angered the Saudis , all the while leaning towards Iran more often than not. Malaysia’s West Asia foreign policies are no better under the Barisan Nasional government – being too dependent on Saudi Arabia as one of its largest economic and trading partners in the region, as well as in its religious, cultural and security policies and diplomacies.

Although the Saudi-Iran rivalry has a long way to go before resolution, the “secret talks” between the two foes send a certain signal in which smaller nation-states, such as Malaysia, should not be so foolish to ignore. Putrajaya must now think beyond haj quotas and palm oil exports. We must pick our strategies and battles wisely when dealing with regional or global superpowers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Let’s not serve teh tarik to one foe and kopi “o” to the other.

This article also appeared iNew Straits Times on 4 May 2021.

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