After seven years of stalled diplomatic ties and exhibition of severe hostility towards each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia have sat down for rapprochement. Their mutual rivalry had materialized in the form of proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, heightening instability and insecurity in the region over the years. The recent agreement is a depiction of an underlying realization on both sides of the table that a long-term confrontation is detrimental not only to the two states but also to the region. This is not the first time that efforts were made by countries to bring them to a table; Oman and Iraq had been trying to do that for the past few years.
China was able to capitalize upon the trust it enjoyed in both Iran and Saudi Arabia and displayed a central role in reconciling the bitter rivals.
China is already the largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia, (bilateral trade worth 87.3 billion USD in 2021) and Iran, (bilateral trade worth 16 billion USD in 2022), and with this agreement in place, China’s position as a responsible partner in the region has been further consolidated. The deal essentially entails the recommencement of diplomatic set-up in the following two months. Most importantly, the two states have agreed to the policy of respecting each other’s sovereignty and not interfering in the internal matters of states. It also involves the revival of accords on trade and investment between the two countries.
China’s Role in the Middle East
China has been involved in the Middle East for decades now, however, its actions were limited to the economic realm. The role played by China in brokering a critical agreement between two bitter adversaries depicts the expansion of China’s designs in the region that have gone beyond just economic relations and into the realm of politics and regional security. Xi Jinping’s endeavors in the Middle East are a depiction of his shift from Deng’s “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead” posture to a more assertive and active global role. Analysts have deemed this agreement as China’s aim to replace the U.S. in the region, however, this case study suits more under the accounts of strategic hedging. The particulars of China’s mediation attempts demonstrate that Beijing is not yet willing to directly challenge the U.S. or put its interests in jeopardy, even though bilateral ties between the two countries are at an all-time low. This agreement is congruous with China’s Five Point Initiative it gave in 2021, which presses upon the stability of the region. This initiative can be seen as a manifestation of China’s “strategic partnership diplomacy,” seeking to establish interest-based relationships, as opposed to the US’s Cold War mindset of alliance-making. (The Four Point Proposal given in 2022 by China is a case in point).
This flagship agreement achieved between Iran and Saudi Arabia through the mediating role of China provides ground for the potential Global Security Initiative (GSI) to carry and consolidate its role as a responsible stakeholder in global conflicts as well.
Moreover, considering its growing energy demand, Middle Eastern oil holds immense importance to China to meet its developmental needs. The reconciliatory role played by China can be seen under the effects of a looming threat of disruption in the supply of petroleum due to either political factors unfolding in the oil-enriched Middle Eastern countries or due to political actions taken by geopolitical rivals such as the U.S. The threat to Chinese interests was felt, when in 2019 Houthi group in Yemen, allegedly backed by Iran, attacked an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia. Such a threat to the supply of energy has the potential to inflict heavy costs on China, as it is the world’s largest oil importer and consumer. The resumption of the diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran is therefore cognizant of China’s economic interests.
Potential Diverging Factors
Despite the clout of diplomatic success over this agreement, certain issues can turn the relations on their head. The Iran nuclear issue can provide a major setback to the newly resumed relations, if not addressed in a way that satisfies not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also other key players such as Israel and the U.S. For Riyadh, Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to its security, and for Israel, it claims, it is a threat to its entire existence. On the other hand, Iran’s foreign policy is majorly constitutive of a posture maintained against Israel and the U.S., which makes its nuclear program inherently crucial for its security and for upholding its ideology. At one point or another, the party states will have to indulge in a talk over the nuclear issue, which has the potential to stall the relations between the two states if not managed cautiously.
Similarly, the recent talks over the prospects of Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel have spurred a wave of dissent in Iran. The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia came at a time when the USA was trying to broker a formal diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia. Although the policy circles in Israel have been shaken by the news of this rapprochement, any prospects of Saudis following the lead of UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel could render its relations with Iran dormant once again.
In the same context, the policy of “non-interference in matters of state” essentially requires both Riyadh and Tehran to pull back their support for proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. The show of power by both regional powers has to be ceased mutually to ensure that the agreement is not dead in the waters. However, this seems difficult considering the interests of their security circles, the extent of their involvement in these conflicts, and the structural gravities confronted by the two states.
One of the most pertaining issues is that the confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran stems from ideological differences that have given rise to sectarian conflicts in the entire region. The two states cut off their ties when Iran burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran in reaction to the persecution of a renowned Shi’ite cleric Shiekh Nimr al Nimr by the Saudi government. This sectarian strife is entrenched in their strategic thinking and has given rise to high levels of mistrust. Even the slightest miscalculation can be potentially misperceived by the opposing party, making the agreement highly vulnerable to external manipulation and rendering its effectiveness in resolving protracted conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen to a minimum.
What does this mean for the US?
US’s pivot to Asia has had a significant impact on its role in the Middle East as a security provider.
Due to the weakening of the security structure, Beijing has been provided with an opportunity to increase its presence in the Middle East which has repeatedly protested U.S. strategic withdrawal and failed interventions in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Although the US is the greater military power, China can be seen as the more eminent and powerful diplomatic power in the region. This agreement has been seen with skepticism in the policy circles of Washington, especially concerning the aims of Beijing in the region. At a time when Western powers are using sanctions against Iran, China stepping up to play a central role in the region’s politics may provide Tehran with a breakaway from its isolation.
China’s actions can not be seen as incongruent with U.S. interests, even though they challenge the U.S. approach to alliance-building and dilute its influence in the region.
China has an important role to play in the Middle Eastern region in terms of not only economy but also politics and diplomacy. Its reconciliatory role between the regional rivals, Saudia Arabia and Iran, is being regarded as a “game-changer” by various analysts. While it is a major diplomatic victory, it also presents China with multiple challenges regarding the long-term sustenance of the agreement. A slight shift in China’s foreign policy posture exhibiting an assertive and proactive role is evident however the extent of this shift, in terms of deeper political engagement, and maybe military as well, in the Middle East is yet to be seen. The agreement holds a wide prospect of cooperation and growth for the region and will predominantly be determined by the actions and intentions of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mahnoor Rashid: The author is a graduate International Relations student at the National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan.