West Asia Roundup: March 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

One of the most significant regional developments was the Saudi-Iran rapprochement facilitated by China at a meeting held by Wang Yi with Ali Shamkhani, Iranian NSA and Mussad bin Mohammed al-Aiban the Saudi NSA on March 10 pursuant to President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh in December and Iranian President’s visit to Beijing in February. In the trilateral statement the two sides agreed to reestablish their diplomatic ties and missions with in period of two months through technical level consultations which were disrupted in 2016. However, the perceived US disinterest in the region and desire to ensure regional security and stability by themselves Riyadh and Tehran have agreed to not interfere in internal affairs of the other and try and address common regional challenges in the spirit of cooperation. While Tehran’s sanctions and isolation may be alleviated the Saudis would be looking for genuine Iranian assistance to end the Yemen war that has proved infructuous and expensive. Already the signs are evident of progress on several fronts including Yemen talks and normalization of Saudi’s relations with Syria. It may however, be remembered that Oman and Iraq have been playing the role of a facilitator between the two rivals for some time now and even in the Yemen crisis and negotiations with Houthis, Muscat’s role remains significant.

Even in the SCO and BRICS where, China, India and Russia are prominent, several regional countries have shown interest to join in pursuance of their Act East policy which may have also played as a catalyst. While Iran joined as full member of SCO at Samarkand Saudi Arabia has joined a full dialogue partner.

Israel under PM Netanyahu and the far right government has seen the worst demonstrations and protests against the proposed judicial reforms which would give the legislature overriding powers over the judiciary including in the appointment of judges and overruling any of its decisions. Under tremendous pressure and threats from his own Defence Minister and fear of losing on the floor Netanyahu decided to suspend the immediate implementation of the reforms. But the Israeli citizens continue to maintain pressure as they do not seem to trust Bibi who himself is facing corruption charges.

Meanwhile, the Al Aqsa mosque violence and tensions with Gaza and Palestinians and Muslim worshippers continued to be a challenge for Netanyahu. Some termed the increased violence as a diversionary tactic by him. Jordanian King, who is the custodian of the Al Aqsa mosque, and their Parliament warned against violation of sanctity of the mosque and increasing violence against Palestinians. Jordan also facilitated talks between Israel and Palestine on this issue. President Biden and Secretary Blinken also conveyed their concern urging Netanyahu to walk back from this path.

Turkish Parliament finally agreed to the admission of Finland in NATO while maintaining their hold against Sweden. Ankara also continued to extend olive branch to the regional powers. Turkish Foreign Minister visited Cairo first time in 18 years and talks of visit of President Erdogan were also pursued.


A Parliamentary Delegation from Israel, led by the Speaker of Knesset, H.E. Mr Amir Ohana called on President of India, Smt. Droupadi Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhavan (March 31, 2023).

The first round of India-GCC SOM was held on 20 March 2023 in Riyadh. The Indian delegation was led by Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary (CPV& OIA) while the GCC delegation was led by Dr. Abdul Aziz Bin Hamad Al-Owaishaq, Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Negotiations, GCC. The meeting had participation from all the 6 member countries of GCC. The India-GCC SOM meeting was held pursuant to MOU signed on India-GCC Mechanism of Consultation during EAM’s visit to Riyadh in September 2022. Both sides conveyed happiness over the progress in trade and investment between India-GCC countries. Both sides agreed for an early finalization of India-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Secretary (CPV & OIA) Ausaf Sayeed held consultations with Saudi Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eng. Waleed bin Abdul Kareem El-Khereiji on 20 March 2023 on the Political-Security-Social-Cultural pillar of India-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council (SPC). They positively assessed the continued high-level contacts between both countries. EAM and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister had earlier reviewed bilateral relations on the sidelines of G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 03 March.

Minister of State for External Affairs and Education, Dr. Rajkumar Ranjan Singh will be visiting Doha, Qatar from 06-07 March to attend the Fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5). LDC5 is a decennial conference focusing on renewed partnerships for the development of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

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Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement agreement

Iran and Saudi Arabia on 10 March have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months. The agreement was signed by Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban in the presence of Wang Yi, former Foreign Minister and Director of Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office since 2023. Riyadh and Tehran after the agreement have expressed commitment to activate the 2001 security cooperation agreement. The two regional powers and China expressed the need for joint efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security. China stated that it will continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues. The relationship between Riyadh and Tehran soured after Saudi Arabia killed influential Shiite scholar, Nimr Al-Nimr that led to storming of Saudi diplomatic missions in the Iranian territory.

In the aftermath of the deal between Tehran and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has agreed to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a “dialogue partner”. The SCO was established in 2001 as a political, economic and security organization to rival Western institutions. The group includes China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran that joined as permanent member in 2022. The decision was approved by cabinet chaired by King Salman. Saudi Arabia’s engagement with China has deepened in the recent years. On 28 March, Saudi Aramco announced multibillion-dollar investment for a planned joint venture in northeast China and acquiring a stake in a privately controlled petrochemical group.

Following the rapprochement agreement, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud held telephone call on 23 March to exchange Ramadan greetings. Both leaders also agreed to hold bilateral meeting in early April to start the reopening of embassies and consulates between both states.

Israeli government postpones judicial reforms

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following months of nationwide protests has agreed to postpone the controversial judicial reforms. He stated that the judicial reform will be re-introduced after his government achieve broad consensus. The proposed changes will limit the powers of the Supreme Court to rule against the legislature and the executive providing the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority of 61 votes out of 120. Netanyahu on 26 March fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing the government’s proposed judicial reforms. It indicated fracture within the government. The members from the far-right parties threatened to quit the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to preserve the ruling coalition allowed the National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to place the National Guard within the National Security Ministry. The decision to hand over National Guard to Ben-Gvir was criticized by opposition Members of Knesset. Labour MK Gilad Kariv argued that it should remain under the police rather than under the control of far right Lehava and Kahanists. Former Israel Police chief Moshe Karadi feared it will allow Ben Gvir to form a private militia for his political needs and recruit extremist settlers. Critics have feared that the legislation could dismantle Israeli democracy and turn into dictatorship.

Moreover, Benjamin Netanyahu government approved amendment to allow Israeli citizens to resettle four illegal settlements in the northern West Bank which were evacuated in 2005. The second and third readings of the legislation were passed by Knesset with 31 for and 18 against votes. The evacuated settlements of Homesh, Sa-Nur, Kadim and Ganim are located close to Jenin and Nablus. Reportedly, around 650,000 and 700,000 Israeli settlers live in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem which are either entirely or partially built on private Palestinian land.

Israel on 30 March carried out air strikes in the Damascus area injuring two soldiers and causing minor damage. Syrian air defences reportedly shot down some of the missiles launched from Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Israel on two occasions in March launched two missile strikes on Aleppo International Airport.

New Appointments in the UAE

The UAE President Sheikh Mohamedbin Zayed Al Nahyan on 29 March appointed his eldest son Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed bin Zayed as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. It has placed him as next in line to take over as the leader of the federation. The UAE President also appointed Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan as Vice President alongside the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The UAE’s national security adviser and chairman of the ADQ sovereign wealth fund, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan has been appointed as the Deputy ruler of Abu Dhabi along with Hazza bin Zayed.

Turkey Ratifies NATO Membership for Finland

Turkish parliament on 30 March approved a bill to allow Finland to join NATO. Notably, all 276 members of parliament voted in favour of Finland’s bid to join NATO. Turkey was the last state within NATO to ratify Finland’s membership. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Finland had secured his country’s blessing after taking concrete steps to crack down on groups seen by Ankara as “terrorists” and free up defence exports. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto thanked NATO’s 30 member states for supporting his country’s bid to join the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “I welcome the vote … to complete the ratification of Finland’s accession. This will make the whole NATO family stronger & safer”.

Jordanian Parliament recommends expulsion of Israeli ambassador

On 22 March, Jordanian parliament in response to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s speech denying the existence of the Palestinian people voted to recommend the expulsion of Israeli ambassador. House of Representatives Speaker Ahmed al-Safadi during the legislative session, called on the Jordanian government to take action. The statement by the Israeli Finance Minister faced criticism in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Amman, the Israeli ambassador was summoned by the Foreign Ministry to register its objections.

Iran and Iraq sign border agreement

Iraq and Iran on 19 March signed a border security agreement aimed at securing the frontier with Iraq’s Kurdistan. The deal was signed between Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Iraq’s National Security Adviser Qasim al-Araji in the presence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. The joint security agreement includes coordination in securing the common borders between the two states and strengthening cooperation in several security fields. Iraq according to deal is committed to prohibit armed groups from using its territory in the Iraqi Kurdish region to launch any cross border attacks on Iran.

Turkish Foreign Minister’s visit to Cairo

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during his first visit to Cairo on 18 March met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. Both sides during the talk agreed to restore ties to the ambassadorial level as soon as possible. It is likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi will meet after the elections in Turkey. Ankara’s relations with Cairo soured after the military coup led by Abdel Fatah Al Sisi ousting the Muslim Brotherhood led government. Turkey and Qatar were the main backers of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post 2011 Arab Spring period. Both sides differ on their positions on Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean region. Notably, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shoukry visited Turkey in February to express solidarity after the earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

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