There were two surprises on 10 March. First, Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals since the 1960s, announced they had agreed to resume diplomatic relations, broken off in 2016 after Saudi Arabia’s execution of a number of Shia dignitaries led to the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Second, the deal – the hard-won outcome of five rounds of secret talks over two years – was brokered by China, which was supposedly isolated on the international scene. This was a spectacular début in the Middle East ‘Great Game’.
The agreement’s significance shouldn’t be exaggerated: true reconciliation is still far off, especially on Yemen where the two countries are fighting a proxy war. But it would be wrong to dismiss it, as the Biden administration initially did (‘nothing to see here, folks’) before later admitting that ‘ultimately, this is a good thing’ (1).
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman modestly described the agreement as ‘a victory for dialogue and peace’ at his weekly press conference. But in fact, this is the first time that China has officially brokered an international accord, and also its first involvement in the Middle East: the US has dominated this area of strategic importance for more than 70 years, despite its pivot to Asia at the start of the century. Until now, China has carefully avoided getting involved in Middle East affairs, to the irritation of President Barack Obama, who saw it as a getting a free ride while the US shouldered the burden of assuring regional security (2).
China’s success is partly due to favourable circumstances: Riyadh’s desire to assert its independence from Washington (especially after the US was slow to come to the rescue after terrorist attacks on its oil installations in 2019); and Iran’s concerns over its economic crisis as well as anti-government protests and threats of Israeli attacks on its nuclear facilities. There is also the growing tendency of countries of the global South not to follow the West’s lead: in May 2022 many abstained from sanctioning Russia after its invasion of Ukraine (3), and at the OPEC+ (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries plus ten countries, including Russia) summit last December, Saudi Arabia ignored US calls to reduce the price of oil by boosting production.
Diplomatic skill and years of work
But China’s success is equally due to diplomatic skill and years of groundwork by its leaders in the region. It was able to take advantage of a favourable moment because it was prepared. Following Deng Xiaoping’s maxim ‘hide your strength and bide your time’, it kept a low profile until 10 March. But over the last three decades it has been far from idle (4).
Ever since adopting a policy of economic reform and opening at the end of the 20th century, China’s leaders have worked at establishing diplomatic relations with every Middle East country – including Saudi Arabia in 1990 (despite its strong anticommunism), Israel in 1992 (despite its treatment of the Palestinians) and Iran in 1990. No Chinese president has ever questioned these relationships; instead, they have been developed further, even when that meant adopting the principles of internationalist solidarity.
This diplomatic initiative was driven by the need for hydrocarbons. Saudi Arabia became China’s leading supplier of oil; Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also began supplying natural gas and oil. Meanwhile, Chinese companies were keen to find markets for their products and partners for the development of new technologies. The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) was founded in 2004, but trade really boomed after China launched its New Silk Road initiative in 2013 (especially in construction, infrastructure and telecoms, including 5G). Between 2002 and 2022, China’s foreign direct investment totalled $106.5bn in Saudi Arabia, nearly $100bn in Kuwait, and more than $64bn in the UAE.
Chequebook diplomacy has also paid off politically: at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in July 2020, none of these Arab countries voted to censure China for its repression of the (Muslim) Uyghurs in Xinjiang. They were returning favours: after the 2018 killing of journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, China did not criticise Saudi crown prince and strongman Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), unlike the US, which refused to talk to him. Riyadh’s reception of Joe Biden in July 2022 was low-key, but when Xi Jinping visited in December, he got a lavish welcome.
China’s leaders are consistent, at least, emphasising that they don’t interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs as they assert their geopolitical vision. They claim they want to pursue ‘dialogue based on mutual respect and equality’, something the West has always failed to do. In this way they hope to win over global South countries in search of capital and recognition. It won’t necessarily work. But what’s certain is that China, obsessed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is not keen to become the leader of a political camp. It has declined to enter into any political or military alliance that could create a ‘cold war mentality’ and ‘camp-based confrontation’ (5).
Though it favours bilateral international relations, China is also promoting multilateral organisations that bring together countries which are in disagreement, or sometimes even in conflict, but want to pursue dialogue and cooperate in non-contentious areas. These include the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey and Algeria all want to join, and where Beijing cannot but play a leading role.
China has added to its diplomatic repertory the concept of ‘common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security’. Xi’s ‘Global Security Initiative’ (GSI), proposed in 2014 and since refined, is the basis of the 12-point plan for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia that China proposed in February. Western commentators have treated the plan with contempt, but the rest of the world hasn’t. Xi outlined the GSI at a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council (6) during his visit to Riyadh last December, emphasising the principle of indivisible security – that the security of each state in a region is inextricably linked to that of every other state. Less than a week after the Iran-Saudi agreement, Xi travelled to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, but also had phone conversations with Volodymyr Zelensky – a sign that Beijing has decided to actively engage in finding a solution to the war in Ukraine.
More emphasis on negotiation
After the aggressive diplomacy of his second mandate (2017-22), Xi seems now to be putting greater emphasis on negotiation, even seeking to include countries the West has excluded. ‘Together we can make the garden of world civilisations colourful and vibrant,’ he told a meeting of political parties from around the world in March (7). Meanwhile, China is happy to be seen as a peacemaker. Even if, in the words of geopolitics expert Hélène Nouaille, ‘it is not the guardian of others’ freedom’ (8), and has no wish to be. Exchanging ambassadors is quite different from building lasting peace.
The Iran-Saudi agreement may not withstand the region’s geopolitical tensions. Its first stress test will be Saudi Arabia’s security in regard to the war in Yemen. China’s efforts at mediation succeeded because, unlike in previous talks, Iran agreed that Ali Shamkhani, former defence minister and now secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, should be directly involved, lending credibility to its undertakings on regional stability. Another key factor was meeting two Saudi demands: that attacks on Saudi oil installations should end, and that Iran should cease supplying arms to the Houthi rebels. The rebels welcomed the agreement but are not likely to stop fighting the Yemeni government forces, which Saudi Arabia has been supporting.
Three-way dialogue on Yemen
With internal divisions in Yemen growing – including a resurgence of the separatist movement in the south – Iran and Saudi Arabia will be hard put to maintain the easing of tensions. Continued détente also depends on a third actor – the UAE, a Saudi ally with its own agenda. The UAE reopened its embassy in Tehran even before Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh and Abu Dhabi still have major differences on Yemen’s future, especially the south, whose separatist ambitions the UAE supports. In the three-way dialogue on the Yemen conflict (between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran) that is taking shape, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s differences will be as important a factor as their shared distrust of Tehran.
The strength of the Iran-Saudi agreement will also be measured in terms of the two countries’ relations with Israel, which sees the rapprochement as dangerous to its future. Iran opposes any normalisation of relations with Israel and frequently criticises countries that have signed the Abraham accords, of which the UAE has been a leading promoter. This does not, however, prevent Abu Dhabi from having robust trade relations with Iran.
Saudi Arabia, which is pursuing unofficial talks with Israel under the auspices of the US, does not rule out establishing diplomatic relations, but would make this subject to certain conditions, notably the creation of a Palestinian state. The fact that a far-right coalition has come to power in Israel lends weight to the arguments of those in MBS’s entourage who think it premature to normalise relations. All this pleases Tehran, which sees it as a sign that neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia wants to see an Israeli attack on Iran.
Tehran’s conditions are simple: the Gulf states can have diplomatic relations with Israel as long as they refuse to have anything to do with possible military action against Iran’s own facilities. If Tel Aviv, now isolated on the Iran nuclear issue, decided to implement its ‘plan B’ – a unilateral attack on Iran – Saudi Arabia and the UAE would have to convince Iran that they are neither accessories nor supporters.
Lebanon, too, could be a theatre of confrontation threatening the Iran-Saudi agreement. One consequence of the US invasion of 2003 was that Saudi Arabia recognised that Iraq was now part of Iran’s sphere of influence. But can it now accept that Lebanon’s president may be close to Hizbullah? For Lebanon’s political crisis to be solved in the coming weeks would entail a compromise between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the issue which most threatens the country’s peace.
Regardless, the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran is a success for MBS. It confirms his independence from Washington and his ability to impose his will on the Sunni clerics who have always opposed any rapprochement with Shia Iran. It also strengthens his standing as leader of the Arab world. Riyadh is due to host the Arab League’s 32nd summit in the coming months (the date has yet to be confirmed), and is expected to agree to Syria, which was suspended in 2011, rejoining the organisation. This will please Iran, Syria’s most important ally. However, the Iran-Saudi deal brokered by China will first have to prove itself before Iran is welcome at the table.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/04/03china China casts itself as Middle East peacemaker, by Akram Belkaïd & Martine Bulard (Le Monde diplomatique