With Saudi-Iran deal, China manifests its new world order
Early this month, the United States, Israel and the West were taken aback by China.
President Xi Jinping has accomplished a diplomatic masterstroke in reconciling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran - two countries that have great influence in the MENA region.
The landmark agreement was reached on 10 March during talks in Beijing between top security officials from the two countries.
Though the two notable Shia and Sunni/Wahhabi Muslim powers in the Gulf have been at each other’s throats for decades and have funded clashing political players in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Western Sahara, and Yemen, they have agreed to accept the olive branch held out by the Chinese.
This resumption of diplomatic relations between the two rival powers, after a break of nine years, ushers in a new geopolitical redistribution of cards in the MENA region. So far, the US, the EU, and Western powers in general have pitted Saudi and Iran against each other in a bid to “divide and conquer.” But with this rapprochement, the West has obviously lost a hand.
"This resumption of diplomatic relations between the two rival powers, after a break of nine years, ushers in a new geopolitical redistribution of cards in the MENA region"
Tensions have long been high between the two rival Gulf powers. This adversarial history reached its apex when Saudi Arabia and Iran severed their diplomatic relations in January 2016.
Riyadh cut off ties with Tehran after protesters ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran after Riyadh’s execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqer Al Nimr, a prominent Shia Saudi cleric who had long opposed the Saudi regime.
He was sentenced to death for advocating the secession of the oil rich Eastern region which has a predominant Shia population. And for the House of Saud, that was the stick that broke the camel’s back.
This new reconciliation is a win-win for both Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia will strive to consolidate its leadership in the region and its dominant role in the Islamic world. As for Iran, the country will pull the plug on its isolation and the severe sanctions imposed by Western nations.
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.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 16, 2023
How China brokered the Saudi-Iran deal 👇
✍ @GiorgioCafiero https://t.co/fsqw4L7CgA
If this process is not torpedoed, both Riyadh and Tehran's role in the war in Yemen could be mitigated.
Besides the war in Yemen, where the Saudis lead a military coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis, the Iranians and the Saudis back rival warring factions in numerous places across the MENA region. They oppose each other in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Better relations between Tehran and Riyadh, therefore, could have a positive impact on the political affairs of the region and beyond.
This would inevitably enhance regional and international peace and security. Many indications reveal that the Syrian regime will integrate the duo’s recent agreement for a political reconfiguration of the region.
Despite the commendations emanating from various parts of the globe, this Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is not favourably viewed by some of the Saudi allies. The White House’s lukewarm reaction is a case in point as the Biden administration has realised that it has been sidelined.
The absence of the US in this deal reflects its diminishing regional influence, with widespread anti-American sentiment in Iran and disappointment inside Saudi Arabia towards president Joe Biden, who once claimed he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah.
The advent of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) and his close connection to former president Trump and Jared Kushner can partly explain the Saudi’s aversion to seeing the current US administration acquainted with the nuts and bolts of the Saudi-Iranian talks in Beijing.
MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has also expressed the desire to give a new stature to his country by positioning himself as a spearhead within OPEC, and by snubbing the recommendations of the White House.
This is indicative of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic breakthrough as the kingdom now intends to resolutely abandon the role of “executor of orders” and dispense with the low-profile attitude it has adopted so far.
"[China] has made it clear that it not only intends to challenge US dominance in the Middle East, but also partake in the settlement of the most onerous conflicts that the international community is facing"
The West has always used Iran as a bogeyman threatening the stability of its neighbours, thereby allowing the West to thrive on the lucrative arms sales to Iran's neighbours.
But now that Iran, “the old enemy,” has pacified its relations with Saudi Arabia, we can expect to see other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies following suit. This is undoubtedly an ongoing geostrategic recomposition in the Gulf prompted by Chinese diplomacy.
Willy-nilly, President Xi Jinping’s China is a new player in the region and a game changer. And while China remains very discreet about this great achievement of its diplomacy, it goes without saying that the Chinese, as Saudi Arabia’s primary trading partner and with their 25-year economic cooperation agreement with Iran, will use the clout they have in Riyadh and Tehran to advance their interests.
Brokering this rapprochement between the Saudis and the Iranians, the Chinese have revealed that the changing global order is materialising. China has thus proved, to the United States and Israel specifically, that it is a conflict mediator.
It has made it clear that it not only intends to challenge US dominance in the Middle East, but also partake in the settlement of the most onerous conflicts that the international community is facing.
What changes can one expect in the coming months? What is the future of the Abraham Accords in light of the latest developments in the Gulf region? With the advent of Chinese diplomacy, is Saudi Arabia breaking away from the influence and tutelage of the US?
As Riyadh’s former intelligence chief Turki Al-Faisal said in a recent interview: “neither the US or Europe would have been able to be an honest broker between the two parties . . . China was the logical partner in making that happen.” The message is crystal clear.
Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian academic and a freelance journalist based in the US. As a former Fulbright scholar, he holds a PhD from the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. His research interests are primarily politics in the MENA region, democratisation, Islam/Islamism, and political violence with a special focus on the Maghreb.
Follow him on Twitter: @Abdel_Cheref
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.