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How China emerged as peacemaker in the Saudi-Iran deal

'Filling the peacemaker vacuum': How China brokered the Saudi-Iran deal
6 min read
15 March, 2023
Analysis: China's historical neutrality in conflicts between Riyadh and Tehran has put it in a strategic position as a mediator, as Beijing continues to assert a more active role in the region.

On 10 March, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they had reached a Chinese-brokered agreement to restore their formal diplomatic relations following recent talks in Beijing. The two countries reactivated a security cooperation accord signed when Saudi Arabia’s then-Interior Minister Prince Naif was in Tehran 22 years ago.

Along with China, both Iraq and Oman played important roles in facilitating dialogue between the Saudis and Iranians which contributed to this diplomatic outcome. Officials from Riyadh and Tehran had several rounds of talks in Baghdad and Muscat beginning in April 2021.

Now Saudi Arabia and Iran have committed to maintaining “respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs.” Within two months, both countries will reopen their embassies, which closed in early 2016.

The agreement addresses some of the major sources of tension between Riyadh and Tehran. The Kingdom agreed to tone down Saudi-funded Iran International’s coverage.

This London-based satellite news channel, which Tehran has designated a terrorist entity, served as a central platform for anti-regime voices among the Iranian diaspora throughout the period of upheaval that beset Iran beginning in September 2022.

Tehran committed itself to no longer encouraging the Houthis to conduct cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia.

China, a rising peacemaker?

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi hailed the agreement as a “victory for the dialogue, a victory for peace.” He also stated that there are global problems besides the Ukraine War which require the international community’s attention. This Saudi-Iranian deal and an Iran-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit expected to be held in China later this year speak to Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East.

While China has spent decades avoiding Middle Eastern conflicts and not playing a mediation role in them, Beijing has more recently eyed an opportunity to insert itself into the region.

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“China has taken advantage of the peacemaker vacuum the US left behind. By not taking sides in the Saudi-Iranian conflict, China has emerged as a player that can resolve disputes rather than merely sell weapons to the conflicting parties,” said Dr Trita Parsi, vice president of the Quincy Institute, in an interview with The New Arab.

“This [Saudi-Iranian agreement] might be the first sign that Beijing has started to adopt a more proactive posture globally, including in the Middle East,” explained Dr Jacopo Scita, a policy fellow at the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation in London.

While discussing “China’s first real foray into Middle East diplomacy”, Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador to Tunisia, told The New Arab that “China has burnished its credentials, but it is not yet clear whether it can follow up more substantively, for example by mediating in Yemen.”

Iran's top security official Ali Shamkhani, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Musaid Al Aiban, the Saudi Arabia's national security adviser pose for a photo after Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume bilateral diplomatic ties in Beijing on 10 March 2023. [Getty]

Implications for US interests

In light of President Xi Jinping’s trip to the Gulf in late 2022, US officials have become more concerned about GCC states moving closer to China and viewing Beijing an easier power to work with than Washington, even if China soon replacing the US as the Gulf Arab monarchies’ security guarantor is not yet imaginable.

Beijing’s role in this Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement will probably lead to more concern among the diplomatic establishment in Washington regarding the future of Sino-Saudi relations.

Nonetheless, what is good for China in the region is not necessarily bad for the US. “While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other's throats also benefits the United States,” explained Dr Parsi.

Other experts share the view that this development is not all bad news for the US. “The Biden administration has been leading the way in emphasising the urgent need to promote diplomacy rather than conflict and confrontation in the Middle East and especially the Gulf region,” Dr Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The New Arab.

“While [Biden’s team] hasn't been [successful in] nuclear negotiations with Iran itself, it's likely to view any reduction in tensions between Iran and Gulf Arab countries as generally positive and helpful to the Biden administration's broader Middle East agenda,” added Dr Ibish. “Therefore, while Washington may be uneasy, it will be ambivalent and see positive as well as negative consequences.”

For China, this was a low-risk and high-reward mediation. Focused on promoting stability in the Middle East for the sake of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s future and securing its oil supplies, it was economic interests in the region that led Beijing to see this as a valuable opportunity to fill a void and assert greater influence through diplomatic means.

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There is a risk in overstating how much of a win China secured for itself. At this juncture, it remains unclear the extent to which this Beijing-brokered deal between Riyadh and Tehran will boost China’s image as a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East. Much will depend on how developments in Saudi-Iranian relations pan out in upcoming weeks and months.

But if this diplomatic agreement can lead to a significant reduction of tension between the Saudis and Iranians, China will have all the reason to be more assertive and confident with its diplomatic influence in the Middle East.

Under such circumstances, in which the deal between Riyadh and Tehran lowers temperatures in the Gulf and beyond, China will be able to demonstrate that its balanced relations with essentially all the actors in the region and their trust in Beijing make it a constructive actor in the arena of Middle Eastern diplomacy.

“The Biden administration decided early on that America’s alliance system constituted a major strength in its global great power competition with China. As a result, rather than withdrawing from the Middle East, America needed to hug its partners there ever more closely and be even more deferential to their needs and wants, lest they would ‘defect’ to China,” Dr Parsi explained.

“But ironically, instead of strengthening the US vis-à-vis China, the US became ever more entangled in the conflicts of these partners. America takes sides in regional conflicts, and all too often becomes a co-belligerent—as in Yemen—which then reduces its ability to play the role of peacemaker,” he continued.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero