China has successfully engaged in the complicated ME diplomacy with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

By Elijah J. Magnier:

Far from a love affair or honeymoon between two rival countries that have been waging proxy wars and battles for decades, the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be defined as a real achievement for both countries, but above all, for Chinese diplomacy. It’s the first time the Asian economic superpower has been directly involved in the most complicated reconciliation in the Middle East, where Beijing has limited itself to expanding its economic rather than political influence. The Iranian reconciliation policy aligns with President Raisi’s objectives from day one of his presidency to restore relations with neighbouring countries and distance the US and Israel from West Asia.

The resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes as no surprise. During the second of five meetings in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2021, the two sides discussed and agreed on many issues, including the reactivation of the 1998 economic cooperation, the 2001 security agreement and the reopening of their respective embassies and consulates. However, Iran and Saudi Arabia pledged to reduce their antagonistic activities and work directly with the local groups or countries involved in the Iran-Saudi conflicts to resolve and end hostilities on the ground. The countries concerned are mainly Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and to keep Israel out of any security cooperation with the GCC. Both countries agreed to refrain from media hostilities toward each other and stop proxy activities on their respective borders that could damage their national security. 

Iran wants to end (or limit) the foreign funding of the riots and sabotage operations on its soil. The Iranian officials tacitly accused Saudi Arabia of financing the recent unrest and its security services have seized millions of dollars in cash and arms trucks that were supposed to be delivered to opposition and terrorist groups operating in Iran. 

Saudi Arabia is committed to its “2030 vision” that reduces its dependence on oil, diversifies its economy and develops public services, infrastructure and tourism. Any attack on Saudi oil infrastructure would damage Saudi’s security and undermine its future domestic and international vision to consolidate Crow Prince Mohamad Bin Salman’s rule. China is offering itself as a guarantor following  Saudi Arabia and Iran assertations of their commitment and respect to fulfil the deal and the peaceful resolution of their differences peacefully. In addition, Saudi Arabia observed how Iran had challenged the US, held its ground against all its harsh sanctions, bombed Iraq’s largest US military base, extended its influence in many regional countries and is enjoying a special status with China. It was time for Bin Salman to win a war with Iran without fighting. This was when China extended its hands to both countries.

For the first time, China has emerged as a powerful and successful player in the Middle East, similar to Russia’s return to the Middle Eastern arena through the Syrian gate in 2015. With effective allies sitting on valuable natural resources, their stability is vital to China and the rest of Asia. The conclusion of a security and stability agreement and the restoration of Saudi-Iranian relations, is China’s most significant achievement after six days of arduous negotiations.

China’s assumption of the role of security backer in an intricate and sensitive region marks the beginning of a new phase for President Xi Jinping at the start of his third term in power. It is an inevitable step for a giant economic superpower in a region monopolised by the US for decades. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia is far from seeing the deal with Iran as contrary to Washington’s interests. For Riyadh, the return of warmth between Saudi Arabia and the US by the end of Joe Biden’s term in 2025 is not out of the question. Biden considered Saudi Arabia a “pariah” kingdom that needed to be isolated and withdrew the Patriot missile defence system when Saudi Arabia was in the Middle of a war with Ansar Allah (Houthis), a move that angered the kingdom’s monarch. The US seems to believe that “oil for security” is no longer a commitment worth holding on to. 

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