Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to resume relations more than seven years after severing ties and reopen their embassies within two months. This was announced after four-day talks resulted in an agreement concluded in Beijing on Friday 10th March. This agreement is being considered a major breakthrough in an acrimonious conflict that has divided the Middle East for a long time. China has provided good offices and played an important role in melting the ice between the two middle eastern oil-producing countries. With the conclusion of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the role of China in the middle east seems to be increasing whereas it is also being perceived that the US role in the Middle East is going to be minimized.
Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked and burned by Iranian protesters, angered by the kingdom’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The cleric had emerged as a key figure in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shiite-majority region in the Sunni-majority nation.
Read more: Iran pardons 22,000 protesters
Since then, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of providing weapons to the Houthis, Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen who have waged a rebellion in 2015 against a Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore the country’s Western-backed government. Tensions reached new heights in 2019 after a wave of Houthi drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities which knocked out half of the Kingdom’s oil output. At that time, US officials said they believed the assault was launched from Iranian territory whereas Tehran denied involvement.
Saudi-Iran renewed ties
Iran and Saudi Arabia had been exploring a rapprochement since 2021, participating in talks hosted by Iraq and Oman. In April 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia held their first direct talks in Baghdad since severing their official ties. More talks including four rounds of negotiations were held between April and September 2022 mediated by Iraq and Oman.
What will be the implications of this agreement for the Middle East and Gulf region? If the Saudi-Iranian agreement moves forward and succeeds to achieve announced objectives, this could be a true game-changer proclaiming an era of peace and prosperity not seen in the region for decades.
The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a spill-over impact on ending the conflicts in Yemen and Syria particularly and the Shiite-Sunni conflict in the Muslim world in general. This agreement will help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate the tensions in the Middle East. Pakistan has always been a supporter of the normalization of relations between these two brother Muslim countries and has been offered good offices for mending ties. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has welcomed the “accomplishment” and congratulated the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
China’s role in the deal is probably intended to send a message to major powers, including the United States that the pivot for the Middle East is changing. The Biden administration has called China’s rise the single greatest geopolitical challenge of the 21st century, through National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House John Kirby declined on Friday to criticize China’s role in brokering the rapprochement while repudiating any direct involvement of the US in it.
To some analysts, Beijing’s involvement is “quite surprising,” as Beijing has largely avoided intervening politically in the Middle East, focusing instead on deepening economic ties. China is the largest importer of energy from the region, and there is a lot of interest among major players including Saudi Arabia and Iran in securing long-term access to Chinese markets. Although Beijing appears to have mainly served as host and facilitator for the signing of the final accord, nevertheless, the agreement sends a very convincing symbolic statement especially the timing of the final deal just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Another important question that arises is why the US has been excluded
Does this indicate a lack of interest on the part of Saudi leadership in the US? I think this is not the case. The American President Biden paid a visit to the Kingdom in July 2022 which was not termed as successful in contrast to President Xi’s three-day trip to Saudi Arabia in December 2022. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi King Salman signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” and the Chinese leader heralded it as “a new era” in ties.
Whereas the Saudi Crown Prince gave a lavish welcome to Chinese President Xi which was a noticeable contrast to the hushed reception given to US President Joe Biden in July. As far as China’s role as a mediator is concerned it is natural that negotiations/mediations should be conducted through mediators accepted by both parties as fair or unbiased and without conflict of interest. China suits this job, especially enjoying the trust of both Iran and Saudi Arabia with no history of regional aggression and colonialism. Most importantly, China buys roughly a quarter of Saudi Arabian oil exports with an estimated 1.75 million barrels a day. Therefore, China wants the safe and uninterrupted flow of energy exports from the Middle east and gulf region. Agreements like the current Saudi-Iranian deal can only ensure it.
Dr. Tahir Ashraf is Chairman of the Department of International Relations at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan and writes extensively on global politics. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya. He can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.