Turning to China instead of the US was an astute move by the Saudi government. Riyadh viewed President Xi Jinping as a more effective mediator with Tehran than President Biden.
New Delhi: Something rather extraordinary in the geopolitics of the Middle East happened last month. On 10 March, after seven years of severed ties, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations within two months. The timing of the deal surprised many observers. But more surprising was the country that brokered the deal—China. It sent the clearest message to date that China is successfully pursuing power projection in the Middle East.
For years, Tehran and Riyadh have been bitter rivals. It was after the Saudi authorities hanged the Shia cleric and dissident Nimr al-Nimr in 2016 that the two countries broke off relations. Nimr had been an outspoken advocate for Shia rights in Saudi Arabia and a vocal critic of the royal family. The authorities had arrested him in 2012, accusing him of spreading sectarian strife and creating instability. Following his execution the Iranian media embraced him as a martyr, inciting angry mobs to storm and ransack the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, while government troops simply looked away. To the fury of Riyadh, the embassy building was set on fire with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Days later, the Saudi government imposed a travel ban on its citizens from visiting Iran.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Riyadh has considered Tehran to be a threat both to the kingdom’s security and that of the region. In Saudi Arabia’s eyes, Iran is a revisionist power that foments unrest in the Middle East through its support of non-state actors. In turn, Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a rival for regional hegemony, one that drags foreign powers into the Gulf. Both countries wish to be seen as leader of all Muslims.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on opposite sides of many of the region’s wars in recent decades, most notably today in Yemen. Here, Riyadh backs the internationally recognised government, while Tehran backs the Houthi rebels. Only five years ago, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, was trying to convince Washington that Iran’s supreme leader “makes Hitler lookgood”. A year later, the Middle East’s cold war threatened to become hot when a swarm of Iranian drones attacked Saudi oil refineries, knocking half of the kingdom’s oil output offline.
So what happened to persuade the two countries to sign an agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations and reduce regional tensions?
The simple fact is that this event didn’t happen in isolation. In recent years throughout the Middle East longtime foes on opposite sides of deep political and sectarian divides have been creating lines of communication. Israel has opened diplomatic relations with several Arab nations; a ceasefire is holding in Yemen; and longtime foes of Syria’s dictator are welcoming him back into the fold. There’s a growing understanding throughout the region that engaging and investing is a strategy that is much more likely to change the behaviour of problematic actors than aggression and isolation.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been quietly talking about re-establishing diplomatic relations for some time, but a year ago it looked as if those discussions had reached an impasse. Iran had been pushing to mend fences and reopen the embassies, but Saudi Arabia had been resisting, holding out for concessions from Iran on other issues, such as the war in Yemen, before it would take that step. Mediation by Iraq and Oman that had brought the two sides together came to a halt after the fifth round of discussions in April 2022 and it was not until China became involved in December that wheels began to turn again.
This was the time that China’s President Xi Jinping went to Riyadh for the first ever Chinese-Arab summit. It was during his meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to discuss trade and investment, that Xi offered to host Saudi-Iranian talks. Things then began to move. The Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers greeted each other on the sidelines of the Baghdad Conference in Amman, Jordan later that month, and in early January Saudi and Iranian officials met for more substantive conversations at the Brazilian President’s inauguration ceremony. China also discussed plans for resuming the bilateral talks with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi during his state visit to Beijing on 14-16 February. It was this extensive preparatory work that led to the China-hosted talks last month which lasted five days. The subtlety of China’s diplomacy was later praised by a Saudi official during a news conference after the talks: “We are very appreciative of China’s role….China helped with some sticky moments”, although he declined to clarify what these were.
This dramatic move by China is the latest step in what is an increasingly close relationship between Beijing and the Gulf States, and was well timed to illustrate its diplomatic strength. Beijing has previously been careful to avoid entanglement in the Middle East, but its burgeoning economic interests there have encouraged it to take on a more positive role. Economic ties with the Gulf States have been growing consistently for several decades, largely at the expense of their trade with the US and EU, and are specifically suited to their needs. China needs oil, while the Gulf needs to import manufactured goods, such as household items, electrical products and cars. Between 1980 and 2019, Gulf exports to China grew at an annual rate of 17.1%. In 2021, 40% of China’s crude oil imports came from the Gulf, more than any other country or regional group, with 17% from Saudi Arabia alone. China has benefitted from increasing demand for its manufactured products, with exports to the Gulf growing at an annual rate of 11.7% over the last decade.
Tehran also welcomes China’s deepening role in the Middle East, not least because it weakens US influence in the region and undermines the US-led sanctions regime that has crippled its economy. In March 2021 it signed a 25-year economic cooperation with China, a significant buyer of its oil. Tehran considers that better ties with GCC countries will lessen the threat posed by the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords, which initiated closer intelligence and military cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, thereby extending the shadow war between Iran and Israel to the Gulf.
From the Saudi perspective, previously strong ties between Riyadh and Washington are now at an historic low, having declined since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Biden didn’t help when as candidate for the White House three years ago he held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit-team in Istanbul in October 2018. When Biden swallowed his pride in July last year and travelled to Riyadh to reset the relationship, hoping the Saudis would increase oil production and lower petrol prices, MBS did exactly the opposite, cutting oil production by 2 million barrels a day. Riyadh has now concluded that the US, once its staunchest ally, is now focused on other priorities, such as the Indo-Pacific, and doesn’t believe that Washington has a clear plan for regional security in the wake of stalled nuclear talks with Iran.
Turning to China instead of the US was an astute move by the Saudi government. Riyadh viewed President Xi Jinping as a more effective mediator with Tehran than President Biden, calculating that involving China was the surest guarantee that a deal with Iran would last. Tehran would be unlikely to risk jeopardising its relations with Beijing by violating such a deal.
For China, the Saudi-Iran accord was a win-win, just as it was a lose-lose for the US. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, boasted that it was a great opportunity to play the role of a “reliable mediator”—implicitly calling the US reliability into question. Wang also made it clear that China wanted to play a greater role in the region to protect its significant trade interests. To underpin his country’s new leadership in the region, Xi Jinping plans to host a high-level meeting of Gulf Arab leaders and Iranian officials in Beijing later this year.
But of course, whether or not China would wish to play a significant diplomatic role in messy conflicts such as Yemen or Israel-Palestine, remains to be seen, and it certainly has a long way to go to match America’s political and military presence in the region. But many observers see China’s latest success in brokering the Saudi-Iran accord as a sure sign that China’s flag, with it five golden stars, is rising in the Middle East, just as the US’, with its fifty silver stars, is waning.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.