There is yet another détente in the Middle East, but it is neither between Israel and Arabs nor has the United States of America (USA) played an intermediary. For a change, Saudi Arabia and its archrival across the Persian Gulf, Iran, have agreed to resume bilateral ties severed since the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and in a rather surprising first, the peacemaker happens to be China. Auspiciously for Beijing, it was uniquely placed to broker a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran given its cordial relations with both countries — a feature that the “indispensable” USA lacked owing to its longstanding animosity with Iran.
Since the exponential rise in the significance of the Middle East owing to the discovery of oil, the USA has been an “indispensable” power player in the region. However, discernably fatigued by the decades-long military engagements in the region and adapting to a transformed global geostrategic environment, Washington underwent retrenchment from the Middle East in a bid to reorient its priorities to Asia-Pacific to counter China’s growing clout and recently towards Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, thanks to their lofty economic and technological ambitions, the gulf countries have been making overtures to China to further expand their already multifaceted relationship — a trend expedited by the frosty relations between the Biden Administration and some of the Arab monarchs.
During the past few decades, China made steady inroads into the Middle East under the garb of geo-economics. Beijing is the largest trading and investment partner of the Middle Eastern nations and buys more oil from the region than any other country. Furthermore, almost all the Middle Eastern countries have signed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and as the Arab Monarchs aim to diversify their economies away from dependence on oil revenues, they are heavily counting on China for crucial investments and technological upgradations.
The growing economic influence did yield China significant political clout in the Middle East but until recently, Beijing has been cautiously reticent to publicly venture into the political arena. Nevertheless, it has gradually been propounding itself as a standard-bearer of United Nations (UN) principles and a proponent of win-win cooperation with reiterated stress on “dialogue and diplomacy” to settle disputes. The mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the first employment of “dialogue and diplomacy” entirely sponsored by China. Reportedly, Saudis — skeptical of Iran — only accepted the deal after China signed as a guarantor, and economically debilitated Iran participated in the dialogue without preconditions after being granted immediate financial concessions besides the previous pledge of grandiose economic partnership. Needless to mention that Beijing is leveraging its economic clout to influence political happenings and more importantly, is no longer doing it behind closed doors; rather is advertising it as a momentous achievement of its diplomacy.
In the larger Chinese scheme of geo-economics outlined via BRI, the Middle East is among the most important geographical spheres, wherein it eyes grand investments in infrastructure, energy and technology. The acrimonious Saudi-Iran rivalry undermined China’s economic ambitions in the region and by brokering the détente, China aims to achieve not only its economic goals but has also announced itself as an influential political player in the region — an alternative to the “indispensable” USA.
Even though American officials welcomed the Saudi-Iran détente and have reportedly scoffed at the suggestion that the US influence in the Middle East is declining, in a zero-sum interplay between great powers, one side’s gain is always the loss of the other side. With the USA already engaged in bitter competition with China in economic, technological, and military spheres, diplomacy is just another frontline where Washington faces a supercharged Beijing vying to carve out its share of international diplomacy — previously dominated by the USA. Saudi Arabia and Iran resuming ties at Chinese mediation — while the “indispensable” USA spectated from the sidelines — bears evidence to the scale of Beijing’s political influence over Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular and all over the Middle East in general.
In addition, the diplomatic coup provides a clue about China’s political ambitions, which are not confined just to the Middle East. China — with frequent references to the UN charter and stress on diplomacy — has been trying to pitch itself as a peacemaker in various troubled zones. Just weeks before the Saudi-Iran mediation, China rolled out a 12-point position paper to bring an end to the hostilities in Ukraine. Although the plan did not receive a warm reception in the West, the message from Beijing couldn’t be less ambiguous: China is no longer reticent to shoulder political responsibilities and seeks to play a global political role by applying “Chinese wisdom”.
The bid to play as a mediator in conflicts stems from the view in Beijing that in contrast to the USA — involved directly or indirectly in conflicts, such as in the Middle East and Ukraine — China has stayed neutral and is, therefore, best suited to play the role of an intermediary. It is yet to be seen how successful Beijing’s push to field itself as a global peacemaker proves in the long haul; nevertheless, the USA’s indispensability, lately circumscribed to the diplomatic arena, has essentially been dispensed with.
Research Officer, SVI