The revival of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was negotiated by China is a major diplomacy victory for the latter
Iranian diplomats returned to Saudi Arabia to take up their posts in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah—a strong signal that both parties were showing serious intent to resume diplomatic ties for the first time since 2016.China has been gnawing and making its space in the Middle East for some time now, taking advantage of fissures between traditional security partners Saudi Arabia and the US amidst other challenges. While Beijing and Tehran signed an expansive yet rickety 25-year strategic deal in 2021, it also operationalised a significant outreach with the Arab world keeping its energy security as the fulcrum of these engagements. While much of the world concentrated on China’s military aspirations, viewed through the lens of its, for now, limited military presence near the fringes of the geographic Middle East in places such as Djibouti, it was also preparing to use its position as the second largest economy in the world to good effect. In fact, it was not just those in the Arab world or Iran that were interested, the closest ally of the US in the region, Israel, also found the lure of the Chinese economy and its advanced technologies irresistible. This waltz with Beijing, of course, was short-lived. The fundamental geopolitical and geostrategic anchoring of the US in the region was based on providing security to the likes of Riyadh in exchange for a level of unparalleled energy security. This arrangement, cemented in 1945 between then US President Franklin D Roosevelt and then Saudi monarch King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy in the critically important Suez Canal waterway anchored relations between the two up until 2019, when things changed. A mute response from the US under the leadership of President Donald Trump to attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels against Saudi oil installations revved up strategic thinking in the Kingdom, now under the rule of young Crown Prince and heir-apparent Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who did not take the American absence kindly. With plans to modernise the Saudi economy and shift it away from its addiction to petro-dollars, a more freewheeling economic outreach has been initiated by the Saudis, and for the same, China is an obvious destination. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 to attend the first China–Arab States summit and China–GCC summit was a pivotal moment for Beijing’s economic positioning, which this week, has also translated to a political one.
The fundamental geopolitical and geostrategic anchoring of the US in the region was based on providing security to the likes of Riyadh in exchange for a level of unparalleled energy security.However, all is not as simple as it may seem, both for China and Saudi Arabia alike. Despite the diplomatic thaw, which still has two-months to be implemented (a long time in the geopolitics of the Middle East), the core issueof a nuclear Iran remains palpable. Despite China’s role here, and it gaining a victory for its image in the region and beyond, Beijing seems both unable to and unwilling to enter regional disputes beyond mediation and diplomatic manoeuvring, much of which is aimed at its own economic and energy security. This is coupled with the reality that Iran walking back on its nuclear programme remains unlikely. While Tehran may ultimately find a middle path with the West by giving more space to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to have oversight over its facilities, the P5+1 itself may act in a completely different mode post the Ukraine war as West’s relations with Russia, China, and Iran fracture simultaneously. Beyond the nuclear issue, Tehran, a quintessential survivalist state, continues to maintain a robust ecosystem of proxies in Syria and Lebanon, giving it access to border regions of both Saudi Arabia and Israel. As murmurs spread over ‘good news’ on the Yemen front coming as well, bringing a terrible war to some sort of closure, the issues between Riyadh and Tehran go both deeper and further away from the confines of the Gulf geography. The story for the US in the region might only just be beginning once again, as it is certain that they had a deep knowledge of what was unfolding. US President Joe Biden may have called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during his presidential campaign, but his grudging visit to the country in August 2022 showed that it is easier said than done to decouple from long-standing strategic engagements which, at the end of the day, severely dents American standing as a steadfast partner and ally across the board. This is a perception that the US continues to struggle with post a botched deal with the Taliban and a subsequent chaotic exit from Afghanistan. At the end of the day, even MbS arguably knows that the security guarantees sought by the Saudis may only have one partner with the capacity, capability, technology, and intent to deliver, that being the US. Allowing Beijing to play mediator, and by association hedging interests, may in fact become a well-timed ploy to pull the US back into the Middle East, mobilising on an increasingly vocal anti-China chamber in Washington DC. While Riyadh would push to maintain a level of strategic autonomy, the US in exchange may well have to shed an absolutist view of ‘us vs them’ when it comes to other actors such as Russia (with whom Riyadh has constructed OPEC+) and China. Unlike the past 78 years of US–Saudi bonhomie, today the Saudis are asking for equity of interests, instead of outright subjugation in exchange for security.
As murmurs spread over ‘good news’ on the Yemen front coming as well, bringing a terrible war to some sort of closure, the issues between Riyadh and Tehran go both deeper and further away from the confines of the Gulf geography.Finally, countries such as India should take serious note of these developments. China’s decision-making is becoming bolder on two notable fronts. First, the simple fact that it is a US $18-trillion economy and now approaches the global order in accordance with its economic requirements to not only maintain but sustain and nurture power. Second, it has a clear view of an upcoming ‘big power competition’ with the US and will be more aggressive to be an alternative in areas of traditional Western influence where power vacuums may arise. At the end of the day, China managed to employ the immense pressure Western sanctions had created against Iran while Washington was either unwilling or unable to come up with an offer to Riyadh that would undercut Beijing. For now, the announcement made in Beijing will have to be implemented over the next 60-odd days as China looks to host an unprecedented summit between Arab monarchs and Iranian leadership this summer. The success or failure of this may not become a watershed moment for Saudi Arabia or Iran but could well be one for China.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme.Read More +