The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran held talks in Beijing on Thursday in the highest-level meeting between the regional rivals since they cut ties seven years ago, discussing the resumption of flights and the reopening of diplomatic missions.
In a joint statement, the two governments said that given their natural resources and economic potential, they saw “great opportunities to achieve shared benefits for their two peoples.”
The meeting came after a surprise rapprochement — mediated by China last month — in which the countries agreed to re-establish their diplomatic missions within two months.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said they would move forward with steps to reopen their embassies in Tehran and Riyadh, which have been closed since 2016, according to the statement.
They also agreed that technical teams from both countries would discuss further steps, including the resumption of flights, visits by official delegations and the granting of visas to each other’s citizens.
The rivalry between the two Islamic nations, which are less than 150 miles away from each other across the Persian Gulf, has long shaped politics and trade in the Middle East.
It has a sectarian dimension — Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and a majority of its populace are Sunni Muslim, while Iran’s people are overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim — and has predominantly played out via proxy conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
Hostilities hit a peak in 2019 when a missile and drone assault on a crucial Saudi oil installation briefly disrupted half of the kingdom’s crude production; Iran-backed fighters in Yemen claimed responsibility, but U.S. officials said that Iran had directly overseen the attack.
In recent years, Saudi and Iranian officials engaged in a series of talks aimed at easing tensions, although they appeared to make little progress until China stepped in to mediate.
Both countries are facing major challenges. Iran is grappling with domestic unrest and an economy waylaid by sanctions, while Saudi Arabia’s leadership is overseeing a daunting plan to diversify the economy away from oil, providing both with incentives to resolve their external conflicts.
On Thursday, Prince Faisal and Mr. Amir-Abdollahian invited each other to visit their respective capitals for additional meetings, according to the joint statement. It was unclear how soon concrete steps would be taken to reopen embassies or resume flights and visas, allowing Iranians and Saudis to travel between the two countries for religious pilgrimages, tourism and business.
The Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad already appear as possible destinations on the website of Saudia, Saudi Arabia’s state airline, but no flights are scheduled.
Asked during a conference in Riyadh last month whether Saudi Arabia would begin investing in Iran, the Saudi finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said it could happen quickly if the agreement held.
He did not address whether that would bring Saudi Arabia into conflict with American and European sanctions on Iran. But Saudi Arabia has been forging a more independent foreign policy under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
”Our aim, and I think this has been made very clear previously by our leadership, is to have a region that is stable, that is able to provide for its people and prosper,” Mr. al-Jadaan said. “Iran is our neighbor, and has been, and will continue to be for hundreds of years.”