The Middle East has long been a hotbed of tension, conflict, and geopolitical maneuvering, with Saudi Arabia and Iran being two of the most prominent players in the region. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been growing, and American influence in the region has further aggravated the matters. For years, the two countries have been locked in a bitter rivalry fuelled by sectarian differences and a struggle for regional influence. However, recent developments suggest that a breakthrough in their relationship may be on the horizon, thanks in part to China’s growing role as a mediator in the region.
The agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been a surprise as both countries have remained engaged in a proxy war in Yemen that has killed thousands of people and fuelled a humanitarian crisis in the country. The flashpoint in the rivalry came when in September 2019, drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, which the kingdom blamed on Iran, caused a significant disruption in global oil markets and raised fears of an all-out war in the region. Despite the rhetoric of both sides, however, a military conflict was averted, and there have been signs of a willingness to engage in dialogue and de-escalation.
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Understanding the matter better
One key factor that has facilitated this process of negotiations and re-establishment of diplomatic ties is the shifting focus of the United States away from the Middle East and towards the Indo-Pacific region. The Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy agenda emphasized reducing American military engagement in the Middle East and prioritizing economic and strategic competition with China.
This has created a power vacuum in the region, leaving Saudi Arabia and Iran to seek out new partners and allies. China, with its growing economic and diplomatic influence in the region, has stepped in to fill this void, offering a platform for dialogue and cooperation between the two countries. China is a major destination for Saudi oil exports and it has also provided heavily penalized Iran with a lifeline by buying its oil. Although China has a deep economic relationship with both countries, it had previously avoided any interference in the geopolitical rivalries of the Middle East.
China’s role in brokering the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been significant. Chinese officials have held talks with both countries, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2020 to discuss regional security and stability. China has also been instrumental in the negotiation of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement between Iran and China, which was signed in March 2021. The agreement covers a wide range of economic, political, and security issues, including Chinese investment in Iranian infrastructure and energy projects, and could potentially reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region.
China’s increasing diplomatic footprint in the Middle East has not gone unnoticed by the United States and Israel, both of whom have long been key players in the region. For Israel, the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could represent a strategic threat, as it would create a united front against Israel’s interests in the region. For the United States, the shift in power dynamics could be seen as a loss of influence in a region that has been a key focus of American foreign policy for decades. The Biden administration has signaled a willingness to re-engage with the region, but it remains to be seen how successful this will be, given the growing influence of China in the region.
Read more: Iran, Saudi to restore ties in major step for Middle East
The implications of the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran are significant, not just for the region, but for the world as a whole. A reduction in tensions between the two countries could have positive ripple effects, reducing the risk of a wider conflict and potentially stabilizing the region. It is hoped that a decrease in tensions between both countries will have significant positive outcomes for conflicts in Yemen and Syria. However, it is important to note that this is still a fragile process, and there are many obstacles to overcome before true reconciliation can be achieved. The sectarian divide between the two countries runs deep, and there are powerful domestic constituencies in both countries that oppose any rapprochement. The United States and Israel may also seek to undermine this process, seeing it as a threat to their interests in the region.
What is highly significant in these recent developments is that they herald the dawn of a new pattern of alliances and geopolitical camps. China’s role as a global power, not only economically but diplomatically as well, is now ubiquitous. The United States must acknowledge that no region is a less important region and any power vacuums created by the US’s lack of interest will be filled by competing powers.
Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that it was with China’s excellent diplomatic acumen and leveraging its economic engagement with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, that this agreement became possible. China has provided substantial proof that it will play its role in Conflict Management in the world, establishing the fact that it has now achieved the status of a superpower.
The writer is working as a Research Officer at CISS AJK. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.