Why is China becoming a major player in the Middle East?
China brokers deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia and Iran have come to an agreement, with the help of China, to restore their bilateral relations, which have been at a diplomatic impasse for several years. The two nations have also agreed to reopen their embassies, marking a significant breakthrough. The negotiations were led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad Al-Aiban and his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani, and were supported by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The agreement is based on respecting the sovereignty of nations and not interfering in their internal affairs. The countries have also agreed to strengthen their ties across various sectors.
The joint statement, which was released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, expressed gratitude to China, Iraq, and Oman for sponsoring previous talks between the two nations. It was signed by Aiban, Shamkhani, and Wang Yi of the Chinese Communist Party’s Political Bureau.
The two countries have had a long history of animosity, which has included proxy wars and allegations of meddling. One of the most significant issues between them has been the Yemeni civil war, where Iran backs Houthi rebels who are fighting the government backed by a Saudi coalition. The Houthis have also attacked Saudi Arabia. Although a ceasefire between the two sides expired last October, the situation has remained relatively stable.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states and Israel, has expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and its missile capabilities.
The reestablishment of relations is the culmination of years of discussions and the intervention of China and Iraq. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in response to the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. In 2021, Iraq facilitated talks between the two nations, which continued throughout the year before eventually stalling.
Xi Jinping’s diplomatic initiative shows that Beijing sees a central role for itself as a new power broker in the Middle East, a strategic region where the U.S. has been the most influential outside player for decades. No longer focused exclusively on energy and trade flows, China’s foray into the region’s politics signals a new chapter in competition between Beijing and Washington.
The Saudi-Iran deal, hashed out behind closed doors in Beijing last week, takes on some of the most sensitive issues between two countries that have been on opposite sides of proxy conflicts across the Middle East for years.
The US’s loss of influence
The Americans, who have been the central actors in the Middle East for the past three-quarters of a century, almost always the ones in the room where it happened, now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change. The Chinese, who for years played only a secondary role in the region, have suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player. And the Israelis, who have been courting the Saudis against their mutual adversaries in Tehran, now wonder where it leaves them.
“There is no way around it — this is a big deal,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “Yes, the United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran specifically, since we have no relations. But in a larger sense, China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office.”
Joe Biden, the President of the United States, previously promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state for its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist living in the US. However, in 2021, he visited the kingdom to lower gas prices, which had been impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During the visit, Biden faced criticism for his friendly interaction with the crown prince, who the CIA had identified as responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
The Biden administration became further frustrated when they believed that the Saudis had violated an unannounced agreement by restricting oil production to keep gas prices high, which they believed was in coordination with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden threatened “consequences” but ultimately did not impose any.
Now, the crown prince is seeking closer ties with China, with the Saudis expressing interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and selling a significant portion of their oil to China. This shift represents a challenge to the Biden administration, as Israel had hoped that the US would bring them together with Saudi Arabia. Israel had already established diplomatic relations with other Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, during the Trump administration, in a move known as the Abraham Accords.
Furthermore, Washington is fast losing patience with the UAE, as its ally continues to help Russia evade sanctions imposed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. The UAE’s expansion of ties with Russia signals another blow to US influence in the Middle East, and the visible shift to the East.
Why is China appealing?
China appears to be a more favorable partner to many Middle Eastern countries as they believe that unlike the US, China would allow them to hold a more independent foreign policy based on their own interests and not those of the US or China.
China fully respects Middle East countries as masters of their own affairs and has no intention to fill a so called “vacuum”, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday.
“We value the agreement we reached and hope we will continue to maintain a constructive dialogue … while expressing the value and appreciation we attach to the continuous, positive role played by the People’s Republic of China in this regard,” said Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, the Saudi representative and the country’s national security advisor.
Likewise, his Iranian counterpart and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said, “clearing misunderstandings and looking to the future in Tehran-Riyadh relations” will lead to the development of regional stability and security and the increase of cooperation between regional countries.
Shamkhani further appreciated China’s “constructive role” in supporting the development of relations between countries, which is necessary to solve challenges, increase peace and stability, and promote international cooperation, Iranian media reported.
According to analysts, China’s strategy of respecting the sovereignty of regional nations and avoiding geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East has been successful in earning the trust of the region. Liu Lanyu, an Iran expert at Tsinghua University’s Institute for International and Area Studies, said that China has proposed practical security measures that respect the interests of all parties. Furthermore, Liu pointed out that China has never colonized or interfered with the Middle East, making it an attractive option for regional countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia who seek security and peace.