Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement: New Regional Role for China?

China is seeking to expand its global political and diplomatic influence beyond its economic ambitions and commercial relations by playing a significant role in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, filling a gap left by the US.

Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement
Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani (R), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C) and Musaid Al Aiban, the Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser pose for a photo after Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to resume bilateral diplomatic ties in Beijing on March 10, 2023. CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY / Anadolu Agency via AFP.

Abu Bakr Batheeb

China’s mediation in the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran was a strategic turning point. Beijing transformed its well-known economic influence into a notable political presence, taking advantage of the United States’ current course in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

China seeks to expand its global political and diplomatic influence beyond its economic ambitions and commercial relations.

Since Biden came to power, the US administration has been working to decrease its long-standing pivotal role in MENA affairs and crises. On the other hand, China is trying to fill this gap in the region’s countries through its strategic agenda. From China’s point of view, Saudi Arabia and Iran are priorities.

China’s presence in the region seems to be gaining acceptance as some countries deem it necessary to enhance China’s political influence in the region.

China has developed strong economic and military partnerships with Iran, transforming Iran into a strategic partner. China views the Saudi-Iranian conflict as an obstacle to the establishment of a significant role in the region, particularly at a time when much of the attention is focused on the Russian-Ukrainian War. This dynamic presents an opportunity for China to involve itself in the MENA region.

A Changing Balance

The Saudi-Iranian conflict is much too deep to resolve in a single agreement. Nevertheless, Beijing’s announcement that Saudi and Iran are rekindling diplomatic relations surprised many in decision-making circles worldwide.

Given the current state of international affairs, expecting countries to change alliances and adjust priorities is only reasonable. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran could shift from hostile to peaceful if both sides were to demonstrate good faith and establish a form of alliance.

Given China’s alliance with Iran, Riyadh sees it as a credible and trusted mediator able to play a crucial role in the rapprochement with Iran. The weight of this alliance allows Beijing to help Saudi Arabia and Iran supersede old grudges resulting from conflicting interests in the Gulf region.

Dr Mohamed al-Araimi, an Omani expert in political affairs, argued that, especially after losing confidence in Washington’s ability to resolve their conflict, the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia aligned with the appearance of a mediator trusted by both. He also stated that the Saudis sought reconciliation with the Iranians to remove regional obstacles hindering their economic plan, Vision 2030. Additionally, the Chinese initiative has provided Iran with a lifeline to alleviate its internal and external crises.

The American Stance

The American perception presumes Iran has a track record of not adhering to peace and reconciliation agreements. Considering past behaviour, American sources are, therefore, sceptical of Iran’s willingness to uphold the agreement in the long run. Nonetheless, these sources consider any action that reduces tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and decreases the likelihood of conflict a “positive development.”

This, however, is merely a diplomatic remark. In practical terms, Washington is apprehensive of Beijing’s newfound role in the region as it may gradually affect the US’ presence. The United States’ political interests in the region could be threatened if China were to successfully establish a credible presence powerful enough to push for a solution to the lingering regional crises and issues.

Al-Araimi deemed the Saudi-Iranian agreement one of the most significant events of the past decade. He added, “It will bring about new balances that could endanger the interests of international powers, starting with the US, Europe and Israel. These powers may use various means to impede the agreement and prevent Saudi Arabia and Iran from pursuing a path that does not align with their interests.”

Al-Araimi believes that since the deal took the American administration by surprise, it likely views the agreement with suspicion.

He further commented, “The prolonged period of tension and conflict in the region has left countries with low expectations of any positive outcomes of the conflict. They view it as a costly, time-consuming and arduous endeavour.”

Sources indicate that Saudi Arabia’s fears over its conflict with Iran have been used by Washington to persuade Riyadh to back American military and security initiatives. The US has also employed this tactic to encourage closer relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The path towards re-established relations between Riyadh and Tehran comprises a multifaceted reality that could produce a conflict of interests between various parties. Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, posited, “Riyadh is attempting to buy down the risk of Iran.” He also considered that allowing China to broker the diplomatic deal would not threaten security relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Potential Obstacles

Since Iran’s nuclear programme has made a substantial leap forward, and its influence has grown in four Arab capitals, the Saudis strongly doubt that Iran would forgo its desire for dominance. The recently announced agreement, which sets two months for resuming official relations and reopening diplomatic missions, suffices in revealing Iran’s intentions.

Al-Araimi emphasised that the agreement’s success depends on both parties’ genuine and sincere commitment. However, he highlighted the possible risks associated with conflicting perspectives within the Iranian regime and intervention by influential domestic actors that may hinder the agreement’s implementation.

On the other hand, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has considerable control over politics and security in Saudi Arabia, and al-Araimi believes his influence can be used to justify the need for rapprochement with Iran to the local population. He noted that adversaries can quickly become friends, allies, or even a lesser threat in modern politics.

Analysts think that due to Saudi Arabia’s desire to distance itself from Israel, it is wary of joining a potential Western-Israeli alliance that may target Iran in the future, even in the face of Iran’s increasing aggression. An alliance of this nature might be accompanied by future military consequences and obligations the Saudi government may not be willing to fulfil.

Saudi Arabia has historically acknowledged the United States as its primary strategic ally. Nonetheless, it appears that Riyadh is now leveraging its recent agreement to, on the one hand, restore amicable relations with Washington, free from pretensions or predispositions, while also pressuring the US to advance their diplomatic relations, enact defence arrangements and support its ambitious nuclear energy projects for non-military applications.

Yemen: The Most Dire of All Crises

Many observers view the ongoing conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The recent Saudi-Iranian agreement, however, could create a positive atmosphere and resolve the Yemeni crisis.

The crisis in Yemen is widely regarded as one of the most complex issues between the two parties. As a result, it was given utmost priority and was extensively deliberated during the preparatory talks held in Muscat and Baghdad before signing the agreement in Beijing.

The ongoing Yemeni crisis puts pressure on the Saudi government, as the conflict’s proximity to its borders exhausts Saudi’s political, military and economic resources.

The Yemeni war has become a threat to Saudi Arabia’s national security, especially since the Houthis pose a direct and constant threat to the security of Saudi Arabia’s energy and waterways. As a result, Riyadh is seeking to exit the Yemeni crisis and mitigate its repercussions. The agreement may provide a means to that end.

Based solely on the recent agreement and without tangible evidence, Saudi Arabia will not fully trust Iran’s intentions for de-escalation and non-interference in its internal affairs. Iran must take steps to influence its Houthi allies to not only halt attacks on Saudi Arabia but also demonstrate genuine efforts to continue the ceasefire and return to negotiations for lasting peace in Yemen.

However, observers remain sceptical of the recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement’s potential to end the Yemeni crisis. While there is cautious optimism in Saudi and Iran, Yemenis believe their crisis runs too deep for a mere political agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to have any real impact.

The agreement may pave the way for a long-awaited ceasefire and end to military operations in Yemen. However, whether this agreement will lead to a political settlement remains uncertain. Observers note that it will be contingent on Iran’s ability to influence their allies in Sana’a to take a seat at the negotiation table.

Naturally, any breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis will have a ripple effect on other stagnant issues in Syria and Lebanon, the latter of which is experiencing an unprecedented economic and political collapse.

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