On 20 July 2022, the spokesperson of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared an upbeat assessment of the five rounds of the Iranian-Saudi private talks, alluding to the upgrade of participation to an “appropriate level” in the upcoming round.[i] Although the restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh is on the horizon, relations will remain largely feeble and mired in distrust given uncertainties coming from the domestic and regional developments.

The problem, however, runs deeper still. Iran and Saudi Arabia need a set of incentives and catalysts to make the thick ice over the Persian Gulf melt, and to rebuild the bridge between their nations. The ecological insecurity embodied in the region’s environmental degradation, drinking water scarcity and mass flooding acts as a uniting force for both sides.

Given the frailty of any renewed relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the European Union can lead the way to mitigate the increasing insecurities in the Middle East, paving the way for the reinforcement of intra-regional engagement and realising the European ‘security provider’ aspiration.[ii]

The Future of the Middle East

Though the resumption of diplomatic relations is at hand, it is unlikely that the relations will go beyond cold peace.

Following a series of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both sides appear ready for additional negotiations, with the possible participation of their respective foreign ministers. It is no exaggeration to say that rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh is the news the region and beyond have long yearned for. Though the resumption of diplomatic relations is at hand, it is unlikely that the relations will go beyond cold peace. The level of delegations and the substance of talks being shrouded in secrecy suggest that only bilateral and regional high politics-related issues have been on the agenda.
[iii] Existing mistrust and suspicion, despite diplomatic advances, remain difficult to overcome.

Surprisingly, amid mutual adversary, Tehran and Riyadh have decidedly avoided taking advantage of their unique public diplomacy tool: the Hajj pilgrimage. Four years after Iranian-Saudi relations were severed, and just a few months before the outbreak of Covid-19, around eighty-seven thousand Iranians travelled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj.[iv] After a two-year hiatus, approximately forty thousand Iranian pilgrims visited Mecca last July.[v] The enormity of this people-to-people engagement, however, never resulted in any remarkable diplomatic progress; since 2015, in fact, state hostilities and mutual public perceptions have remained unchanged. For the latter, according to the 2021 public opinion survey commissioned by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland University, 89% of the Iranian respondents indicated a negative attitude toward Saudi Arabia.[vi] A 2020 poll by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies likewise reveals that 75% of the Saudi respondents perceive Iran as a threat to their nation and the Arab world in general.[vii]

Tehran is looking for détente with the Gulf states to ease pressure and shift attention to Israel.

Against these deep-rooted backdrops, the region is witnessing shifting alliances. Factors such as the fate of Iran’s nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), the extension of the Abraham Accords, and the US elections in 2022 and 2024, for instance, shape regional states’ policies. In the Iranian-Saudi context, since Tehran is looking for détente with the Gulf states to ease pressure and shift attention to Israel, the resumption of diplomatic relations with Riyadh is in its strategic interest. However, any factor—from the JCPOA to the Abraham Accords—can alter the Saudis’ calculation and affect Riyadh’s judgement of the costs and benefits of cordial relations with Tehran. So, to preserve the promising developments coming from Iranian-Saudi normalisation, both sides—and particularly Tehran—urgently need to diversify their interactions beyond hard security profiles. Discussing Yemen, Syria and Lebanon—where their interests and priorities are significantly at odds—is an unstable base on which their future relationship would be prudent not to rely. To this end, Tehran and Riyadh should look for shared trajectories in their post-Cold War relations to keep the window of bilateral engagement open.

Human Security in the Middle East Is in Peril

As national and regional security are rare assets across the contemporary Middle East, human security, which gives primacy to individuals against military and non-military threats, is also at stake. The outbreak of coronavirus in the Middle East is the most acute human insecurity its states—and other parts of the world—have recently faced, but they fundamentally failed to mobilise their forces for a collective containment of the virus. In the initial stages of the coronavirus spread and in the absence of a regional Middle Eastern institution, the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, covering territories in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia, gathered senior health officials from these regions a few times for a joint action, but to no avail. While the pandemic demonstrated the seriousness and urgency of human security, it could not unite the Middle Eastern states around this shared threat.

In addition to ongoing viruses and diseases, the Middle East is now coping with pervasive ecological insecurity. As the Gulf states and Iran were recently hit with deadly flash floods and thunderstorms,[viii] they have concurrently struggled with dust storms, unprecedented heatwaves, land subsidence, droughts and looming drinking water shortages. According to several media reports, cities in Iraq, Kuwait and Oman topped the list of hottest cities worldwide on 18 June, registering temperatures ranging between 49 and 50.4 degrees Celsius.[ix] The Middle East is also home to twelve of the world’s seventeen most “water-stressed countries” according to the World Resources Institute.[x] Besides, in case of a natural disaster, an oil spill, or even a targeted military attack in the Persian Gulf, people in the Gulf monarchies could be left without fresh water; not least because 90% of the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar’s water supply relies on desalinated water from the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman.[xi]

Even though the states contain public dissent, climate change will leave the political order vulnerable to internal pressure.

Such insecurities have threatened nations’ wellbeing, safety and security and have relentlessly jeopardised the region’s economic prosperity and political stability. According to the United Nations, dust storms cost the region’s economies $13bn (£10.3bn) a year.[xii] The ecological insecurities also link to the political order and stability of the states, since any disequilibrium in human security is construed as an injustice in resource distribution by the state authority. Therefore, a mass mobilisation of the deprived communities is looming. Even though the states contain public dissent, climate change will leave the political order vulnerable to internal pressure. According to an investigation by Stanford University, climate calamities have generally “influenced between 3% and 20% of armed conflict risk over the last century” and, with that influence likely increasing, there is good reason to think the region might see local and intra-regional armed conflicts emerging.[xiii]

Broadly speaking, in the Middle East, where few states are failing and the rest are confronted with various socio-economic and socio-political struggles, human insecurity poses dire challenges. Under this circumstance, the Middle Eastern states must swiftly prioritise the shared threats to their security and the region’s ecosystem and look for collective actions to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change. Empowering regional states to find solutions to these evolving non-military threats, however, is only part of the puzzle. They also need to decide whether there is an avenue for extraterritorial intervention.

Should the Solution to Insecurity Come from Within?

Amid a devastating dust storm across the Middle East, Iran hosted a regional ministerial meeting of environmental cooperation last July in Tehran where senior officials from the Gulf, Middle East and Central Eurasia discussed how to mitigate the transnational ecological crises they are all facing.[xiv] Though the ministerial meeting did not intend to resolve the long-standing environmental challenges in the region, the participation by the majority of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (i.e., the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait), alongside Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia heralded a hopeful message that the region realises the danger posed by ecological crisis. It makes sense that following the resumption of diplomatic relationships with Saudi Arabia, Tehran has invited the kingdom to join this newly established club.

While the initiative will entangle the shared concerns of Iran and the Gulf states over the region’s environmental degradation, it is naïve to think the initiative will accomplish its goals. As the region lacks an institutional framework for engagement—handicapped by its power politics and few shared interests—Iran’s desire to establish a permanent secretariat in Tehran to coordinate climate policy would likely act as a significant stumbling block to environmental integration across the region. Equally important, the ongoing uncertainties haunting the region and the profound influences of external factors in the regional states’ decision-making processes make the Tehran initiative largely stillborn.

If the JCPOA dies on the negotiating table and the financial restrictions and energy embargoes against Iran are maintained, Tehran is likely to adopt more adversarial, destabilising behaviour.

One of the greatest uncertainties the region faces is the fate of the JCPOA. If the JCPOA is revived, Iran will be financially enabled to bolster its regional activities and proxy forces.[xv] Alternatively, if the JCPOA dies on the negotiating table and the financial restrictions and energy embargoes against Iran are maintained, Tehran is likely to adopt more adversarial, destabilising behaviour. One plausible move that Iran could take, for example, is disrupting energy exports from the Persian Gulf, as Tehran carried out the very same policy in the final years of Trump presidency.[xvi]

In addition to this dilemma, the outcome of the upcoming US elections in 2022 and 2024 could alter Saudi Arabia’s calculations in dealing with Iran. Currently, the general perception in the Gulf is that the White House under Democratic President Joe Biden is abandoning the GCC states against Tehran, despite Biden’s recent pledge that the US will not walk away from the Middle East.[xvii] Alternatively, a Republican-dominated Congress or a Republican president could sway the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies’ rapprochement with Iran and repeat the Trump Middle East policy. Against these backdrops, more inter-regional engagements in areas where all stakeholders share concerns or threats from challenges such as ecological security might diminish the uncertainties or great powers’ external influences on the region.

In the absence of regional states’ willingness to find long-term solutions to regionwide struggles, Europe and the European Union (EU) are capable of filling the void. Though other established and rising powers—namely the US and India, along with the UAE and Israel under the “I2U2” partnership[xviii] or NATO[xix]—have committed to helping the region, the EU is the only trusted global power enjoying a vision for and calibrated relationships with all regional stakeholders. The Union released its strategic partnership document with the Gulf states in May 2022[xx] and its new Agenda for the Mediterranean region in February 2021.[xxi] Amid the talks over reviving the JCPOA and in the absence of an EU delegation in Iran, the Union introduced a Multi-annual Indicative Programme underpinning a medium to long-term vision for the EU’s cooperation with Iran in specific sectors for the period of 2021-2027.[xxii]

The EU can buy influence and offset Russian and Chinese power in the Middle East.

Despite its failure to realise these visions and missions concentrating on the ecological insecurities in the Middle East, the EU’s aspiration to be a security provider is a fertile ground for investing its capital, including finance, scientific excellence and expertise, in the Middle Eastern nations’ wellbeing and security. To do so, the EU needs to prioritise soft security in its external foreign relations and mobilise its forces to this aim, even though the Union and its member states should continue to reinforce their hard security mindsets and apparatuses to counter military threats. The 2015 refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrated European states’ Achilles’ heel. Since the influx of additional climate refugees from the Middle East amid climate-induced armed conflicts and instability is imminent, to the detriment of Europe’s security and social fabric, it is in Europe’s interest to intervene in the looming ecological disasters in the region. Through this intervention, the EU can buy influence and offset Russian and Chinese power in the Middle East. More importantly, however, it creates a credible avenue for intra-regional engagement, particularly between Tehran and Riyadh, in which their possible restoration of diplomatic relations requires more incentives to cooperate. By broadening the concept and principles of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, the EU’s intervention in support of Middle Eastern ecological security would gain traction.

For many people and states in the region, the EU and its member states’ governance can provide a useful model which should not be overlooked. For instance, after this summer’s deadly monsoon and flash floods in Iran, a media outlet subtitled a ten-minute Bloomberg video on how Rotterdam’s innovative flood defence system—consisting of a series of modernised storm surge barriers—has long held rising waters at bay.[xxiii] The subtitled video quickly went viral on Iranian social media networks and other outlets with a message to the Iranian government that it should emulate best practices from Europe to solve problems at home. This is only one of the numerous instances of how science and know-how from the EU and its member states can alleviate climate crisis in the Middle East.


Stability in the Middle East is primarily tied to the extent of Iranian-Saudi interaction. Since both countries have decided to concentrate on the cold peace and selective cooperation, incentives are necessary to stabilise their relations long term. Ecological insecurity across the Middle East provides a common threat for both sides—as well as other stakeholders—to collectively find answers for their human suffering. Attempts to institutionalise local capacities for addressing climate disasters may not bear fruit soon. Nonetheless, the urgency of the issue requires the EU to utilise its scientific expertise and capabilities to address soft insecurities, realise its security provider aspirations and act as a genuine facilitator of intra-regional dialogue on shared threats.

Despite some pessimistic voices whispering about the infeasibility of the EU’s involvement,[xxiv] its success mainly depends on how Europe formulates its modes of engagement in the region, identifies means and ends and wields its power to make the regional states, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, close ranks around a shared non-military issue of concern. If Europe perceives itself as a responsible power to protect nations with no exception, the looming climate calamities in the broader Middle East can verify this perception.

[i] Government of Iran. “FM spox: Iran needs serious, clear, verifiable guarantee to secure its interests.” 20 July 2022. https://irangov.ir/detail/391884.
[ii] Brzozowski, A. “Europe has to become a security provider, says EU’s Borrell.” EURACTIV. 10 November 2021. https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/interview/europe-has-to-become-a-security-provider-says-eus-borrell/.
[iii] Hashem, A. “Exclusive: Iraq’s PM girds to expand Iranian-Arab dialogue.” 27 June 2022. Amwaj Media. https://amwaj.media/article/kadhimi-iraq-ksa.
[iv] The New Arab. “Iran, Saudi Arabia ‘sign deal’ for 2019 hajj season.” 19 December 2018. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/iran-saudi-arabia-sign-deal-2019-hajj-season.
[v] Holleis, J. “Saudi Arabia’s new Hajj lottery has many Muslims fuming.” Deutsche Welle. 5 July 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/saudi-arabias-new-hajj-lottery-has-many-muslims-fuming/a-62368626.
[vi] “Iranian public opinion at the start of the Biden administration: Report.” Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. 24 February 2021. https://cissm.umd.edu/research-impact/publications/iranian-public-opinion-start-biden-administration-report.
[vii] Kamrava, M., & Dorzadeh, H. “Arab Opinion Toward Iran 2019/2020.” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/Arab-Opinion-Toward-Iran-2019-2020.pdf.
[viii] Narayanan, A. “UAE: Seven people dead after floods hit Sharjah, Fujairah.” Ras Al-Khaimah, Al Arabiya Englishhttps://english.alarabiya.net/News/gulf/2022/07/29/UAE-announces-six-deaths-after-rains-flooding.
[ix] “Middle Eastern cities record highest world temperatures.” The New Arab. 19 June 2022. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/middle-eastern-cities-record-highest-world-temperatures.
[x] Alaaldin, R. “Climate change may devastate the Middle East. Here’s how governments should tackle it.” Brookings. 18 March 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2022/03/14/climate-change-may-devastate-the-middle-east-heres-how-governments-should-tackle-it/
[xi] Bentley, E. “What could environmental cooperation between Iran and the GCC look like?” Middle East Institute. 10 December 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/what-could-environmental-cooperation-between-iran-and-gcc-look
[xii] Syal, R. “Apocalyptic skies’: The dust storms devastating gulf states and Syria.” The Guardian. 3 June 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/03/apocalyptic-skies-dust-storms-wreaking-havoc-iraq-syria
[xiii] Ryan, D. “Does climate change cause armed conflict?” Stanford News. 12 June 2019. https://news.stanford.edu/2019/06/12/climate-change-cause-armed-conflict/
[xiv] “Iran welcomes regional cooperation to address environmental challenges.” Tasnim News Agency. 12 July 2022. https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2022/07/12/2742458/.
[xv] Dagher, M. “How Will a Revival of the JCPOA Affect Regional Politics and Iranian Militias?” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 9 March 2022. https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-will-revival-jcpoa-affect-regional-politics-and-iranian-militias.
[xvi] Dolzikova D. and Borck, T. “Alternatives to Failed Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran.” Royal United Services Institute. 24 September 2021. https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/rusi-newsbrief/alternatives-failed-nuclear-diplomacy-iran.
[xvii] “US ‘will not walk away’ from Middle East: Biden at Saudi summit.” Al Jazeera. 16 July 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/16/biden-lays-out-middle-east-strategy-at-saudi-arabia-summit.
[xviii] “Joint statement of the leaders of India, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and the United States (I2U2).” The White House. 14 July 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/07/14/joint-statement-of-the-leaders-of-india-israel-united-arab-emirates-and-the-united-states-i2u2/.
[xix] “NATO 2022 – strategic concept.” NATO. 30 June 2022. https://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/.
[xx] “GCC: EU unveils Strategic Partnership with the Gulf.” European Commission. 18 May 2022. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_22_3165.
[xxi] “Renewed partnership with the Southern neighbourhood – a new agenda for the Mediterranean.” European External Action Service. 9 February 2021. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/renewed-partnership-southern-neighbourhood-new-agenda-mediterranean_en.
[xxii] “Multiannual Indicative Programme 2021-2027 for Iran.” European Commission. December 2021. https://international-partnerships.ec.europa.eu/countries/iran_en.
[xxiii] “How Rotterdam’s Flood Defenses Could Help Save Us All.” Bloomberg. 9 September 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2021-09-09/how-rotterdam-s-flood-defenses-could-help-save-us-all-video.
[xxiv] Azizi, H. “This won’t happen when the boundary between Security & non-security issues in #Iran …” Twitter. 14 July 2022. https://twitter.com/HamidRezaAz/status/1547489856074518528.


  • Mahmoud Javadi

    Mahmoud Javadi is a postgraduate researcher in the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy. He examines the transatlantic alliance in the Middle East. Twitter: @mahmoudjavadi2

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The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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