The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1859–1865) once stated that, “in international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. This rationality of state actors’ trigger relations in the field of politics, security/strategic, economic, and at the socio-culture domain. Since then, leaders around the world have invoked it not only to justify their policies both at domestic and international level but also to take actions, whatever deem necessary to peruse their national interests broadly defined in terms of power/security maximization (mostly) on one hand, and economic progress and stability, on the other hand. For example, Great Britain (the colonizer) and the US (the colonized) who were once enemies are now the closest and trustworthy allies. The former, even supported the later when the rest of the world denied all kind of support during the Iraq War of 2003. In this backdrop the ongoing Saudi-Iran rapprochement which the Chinese government facilitated and mediated to bring the two arch regional rivals to commence a new journey and forget the thorny past strained in blood and hostility. Different scholars around the world have responded differently based on their personal experiences of the world of politics. To some, this will marshal regional stability and dilute the existing power competition and proxy wars while others believe it as the ‘beginning of the end’ in itself due to historic rivalry of the two regional rival powers.
The decision taken by both to resume diplomatic relations seems somewhat encouragement for both states in particular and the regional level at large rooted in procuring national interests. In the pretext of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MBS) ‘vision of 2030’, Riyadh objective is the modernization and diversification of the country’s economy away from hydrocarbons. To achieve the desired objective Saudi needs oil drilling, its transportation and sales without disrupting which necessitates to lower the regional rivalry with Iran. This will also bring foreign direct investment in the country. In addition, the monarchy, who has already depleted its resources at the regional level fighting proxy’ wars against the arch rival, can be saved and diversified somewhere to boast its economy. At this regard patch-up with Iran is very rational decision what the realists follow to believe that is making friends and disbanding enemies if it serve the national interests of a state. The new chapter between Saudi-Iran might result in ending the continued violence and instability in Yemen in particular and in Arab Peninsula in general, which are more of geopolitical nature than religious.
This will also help MBS to come out of greater influence of the United States which had created many thorns in the relationship between Riyadh and Washington. Biden’s government has weaponized human rights against Saudi especially, the Jamal Khashoggi murder and the human rights violation inside Saudi and Yemen, that had jolted the MBS led regime with its constant threat of reprimand. American buying of Saudi oil, the dominant export commodity of the oil rich kingdom combined with an anti-Iran narrative had sustained the otherwise thorny relations.
The change comes in light of MBS, reimagining Middle East approach where in his aim to transform the Middle East comes in light of making it the next Europe. In this regard, Saudi led-alliance normalization of its relations with Israel and its explicit recognition was the first step.
This rapprochement comes at a time when Iran is passing through tough time facing domestic, regional and international pressure. Domestically, Iran faces the ‘off and on’ masses protest due to unconstitutional killing of individuals, unemployment and the price hike of the daily commodities. Regionally, Iran is worried about the volatile situation in Afghanistan on one side, and the regional contestation against Saudi led-alliance and the mounting pressure from the Israel on the other side. While internationally, Iran is under constant sanctions from the US, UN and its affiliated bodies and Europe also. Only China and Russia are believed as friend in need who the US pressure to resume economic and military relations.
The ongoing regional rapprochement reaches at a time where the US and Israel is openly accusing the Iranian nuclear program that it is just shy of ‘weapon-grade’ enrichment of 90 percent, a central cause of concern for both the US and Israel. By fending off relations with Riyadh, Tehran can assume it as an opportunity to divert its energy into more constructive engagement internally to address the Iranian grievances. Regionally, Tehran probably will allow for greater defense related stability and increase in its energy options with regard to both Saudi Arabia and China. In addition, Tehran might gamble that Saudi will be less motivated to joint US-Israel actions against them where Riyadh is expected to continue cooperation with Israel and US in military and intelligence domain. Lastly, Iran’s interest apart from energy would lay in getting political and diplomatic support from the Saudi Kingdom with regards to key issues in the ME such as Iran’s relations against Israel and offsetting American political, diplomatic support to Israel. This positive gesture from both might lead to further economic and commercial cooperation between the two arch rivals of the ME and in resolution of the outstanding unresolved conflict of interests.
As for as China’s approach to world politics is founded in “Strategic-Partnership Diplomacy” which is based on pursuance of its national interest and establishing bilateral relations rather than choosing sides and balancing against a third party. This policy enables Beijing to increase its influence in Gulf region without intimidating the other; a policy that no other power has achieved yet. China’s breakthrough diplomatic victory in the ME, would ensure the smooth flow of energy to its industry that has been disrupted due to proxy wars and the US presence in the region. Chinese grand strategy is not to involve in security issues. Therefore, it is not becoming a guarantor. It is more concerned with energy needs and wants a cordial working relation with both. The Geopolitical shift is evident in the case when Iran declares not to support his proxies in KSA proximity.
Last, but not the least, scholars believe that the Chinese intrusion in the ME region is its own fault. The US practically abandoned the region since its withdrawal from Syria that resulted in power vacuum and was filed by the Chinese. Though the US was helpful in finalizing the ‘Abraham Accord’ but failed to practically provide what the its allies were looking for. Though the US has welcomed the détente between the regional rivals. But still believe what John Kirby said that “As far as Chinese influence there, or in Africa or in Latin America, it’s not like we have blinders on. We certainly watch China as they try to gain influence and footholds elsewhere around the world in their own selfish interests”.
To conclude, it had to happen one day. Both countries are acting pragmatically. As far as the role of china and the US is concerned, there is a lot of exaggeration I would say. Day before the normalization signing, Saudis had requested the US to help it in its defence and civil nuclear program. The US is and would remain a dominant actor in Middle East. China is just procuring its economic interest. Neither it has the resolve nor the capacity to replace the US. It has more to lose if the region remains unstable as we saw Houthis’ missiles hitting Saudi oil facilities impacted the whole world including China in recent past. As far as the situation around is concerned, I believe that the sectarian motivated proxy wars have been the principal thorn of contestation between the two countries. Their resolution and its fallout in terms of overall development for the region will depend upon the commitment of the two bitter rivals to this rapprochement. The episode can be marked as what happened decades ago between the US and China, although no other comparison can be drawn, but just rapprochement between two rivals. If we view how the relations have transpired over decades, it is evident that it is a temporary detent thing….ME security and geostrategic structure is way too complex and hostile variably to settle for quick peace between two rivals for which we need to understand the ‘Intra-Civilizational Clash’ between Riyadh and Tehran.
Dr. Hamid Iqbal is a faculty member in the department of International Relations at National Defence University (NDU) Islamabad, Pakistan.