President Jacob Zuma and President Rouhani having a tete-a-tete meeting at Saab Abad during his state visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran. 24/04/2016 Kopano Tlape GCIS

SA’s relations with the Middle East are something of a black hole, replete with ironies and mysteries, writes Peter Fabricius.

Pretoria - South Africa’s relations with the Middle East are something of a black hole, replete with ironies and mysteries. This collective ignorance was brought to light by the juxtaposition of two state visits President Jacob Zuma has just conducted, to Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These are emerging ever more strongly as rivals for hegemony in the Middle East, a rivalry underscored by several factors, including the fact that Saudi Arabia sees itself as the standard bearer of Sunni Islam and Iran of the smaller Shia sect.

So they are fighting proxy wars in other countries like Yemen.

Riyadh has become far more assertive in Middle East affairs since the takeover of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud last year.

The country was highly alarmed by the nuclear arms deal which the US and other Western powers did with Tehran last year when they lifted oil and other sanctions in exchange for assurances from Iran to stop nuclear activities which could lead to the construction of nuclear weapons.

Apart from the fact that Saudi Arabia probably doesn't believe Iran has fully abandoned its nuclear weapons programme, the lifting of sanctions has liberated frozen Iranian funds, which it could use to pursue its proxy wars. Saudi Arabia has been suspected of playing an ambivalent role in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Many foreign governments and analysts believe it provided funding and other support to the terrorist group, perhaps as protection money, and perhaps also because there were sympathisers towards al-Qaeda because of a common appreciation for its Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam.

In that respect, Saudi Arabia rather resembled Pakistan, which had a similarly ambivalent attitude towards the Taliban. There were (perhaps still are) deep suspicions that elements within the Pakistani intelligence community favoured the Taliban.

Saudi relations with the US are strained by legislation going through congress which would allow the victims of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 to sue Saudi Arabia for damages. That is based on the suspicion that the Saudis were providing support to al-Qaeda.

Suspiciously, 28 pages have been redacted from a report by Congress into the 9/11 attack, dealing with the involvement of foreign countries. The Obama administration is under pressure to release this information, which is suspected to confirm Saudi Arabia's complicity.

Riyadh has threatened to withdraw a $750 billion investment in the US - to protect if from seizure - if the legislation is passed. But the Salman administration seems unambivalent about Jihadism and is going after the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State aggressively.

Mohammed bin Nayef, the current intelligence chief, and heir apparent to Salman, “decimated al-Qaeda” in Saudi Arabia, according to former US defence secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta.

He penetrated plots, cracked down on funding and promoted deradicalisation. He had an amazing escape from death at the hands of a jihadist in 2009. The youngster contacted him and said he wanted to renounce radicalisation and turn himself in.

Nayef agreed to do so. The man detonated a bomb hidden inside his body as he met Nayef but the jihadists’s body shielded Nayef so he only suffered minor injuries.

How does South Africa fit into this fraught Saudi-Iran relationship? Pretoria has historically been much friendlier with Iran than Saudi Arabia. So it was ironic that Zuma opened a joint South African-Saudi munitions factory in Saudi Arabia last month.

There are also unconfirmed reports the parastatal Denel has done a deal to sell the Saudis armed drones.

Selling arms to Riyadh is perfectly legal as it has been approved by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) as a legitimate buyer. South Africa is already selling Saudi Arabia a lot of arms. But if the NCACC is happy with Pretoria selling arms to Riyadh, one wonders if Tehran is also? South Africa does not sell weapons to Iran, perhaps because of US and/or UN sanctions.

Yet there was no visible sign of any disapproval during Zuma's state visit just completed. He was granted a rare audience with the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the two governments agreed that with the oil sanctions lifted, they would vigorously pursue far stronger economic relations.

They also lifted relations to the strategic level, Pretoria said. “Strategic” sounds impressive. “Munitions” are more real.

The Sunday Independent