- China has helped brake a historic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize their relationship.
- The two countries have agreed to reopen their embassies and start work on a formal peace agreement to end the civil war in Yemen.
- The agreement can have implications for countries such as Israel and Turkey, and increase China’s attractiveness in the Middle East.
China has successfully brokered a historic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize relations, with the potential to transform the Middle East by replacing the current Arab-Iranian divide with a complex web of relationships.
The US had encouraged Iran and Saudi Arabia to start discussions to reduce tensions, advance nuclear talks, and bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. However, during his visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, President Joe Biden urged the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join with Israel to contain Iran. Instead, the Saudi government turned to China, viewing President Xi Jinping as a better mediator with Tehran.
Involving China was the surest guarantee that a deal with Iran would last. The two sides agreed to bury the hatchet, with both sides reopening embassies, and the Saudi government ending its support for the Iran International television channel that Tehran holds responsible for domestic dissent. Iran will cease supplying Houthi rebels with arms, and persuade them to halt their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
China will continue to oversee all of these steps. Both Tehran and Riyadh believe that they will benefit from working through China to restore regional ties. Tehran welcomes China’s deepening role in the Middle East because it weakens U.S. influence in the region and undermines the U.S.-led sanctions regime that has crippled Iran’s economy.
How the Saudi Arabia and Iran deal can transform the Middle East
The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a landmark event that has the potential to transform the Middle East. For decades, the region has been defined by the Arab-Iranian divide, which has been exploited by external powers to advance their interests.
The new agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia marks a departure from this pattern, with the potential to create a complex web of relationships that could reshape the region’s political and economic landscape.
The US had been actively working to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hoping to advance nuclear talks and bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. However, during his visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, President Joe Biden urged the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join with Israel to contain Iran.
The Saudi government turned to China, viewing President Xi Jinping as a better mediator with Tehran. The involvement of China was seen as the surest guarantee that a deal with Iran would last, as Tehran would be unlikely to risk jeopardizing its relations with Beijing by violating such a deal.
In December 2022, President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia and discussed the issue with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Chinese president then met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing in February 2023, and intense discussions between Iran and Saudi Arabia followed.
For both countries, Xi’s personal intervention was critical. Both have long-standing political and economic ties with Beijing, and the Chinese president was, therefore, able to act as a trusted broker between them.
Back to the past in the Saudi-Iran relations
If the deal is fully implemented, Tehran and Riyadh will be closely aligned once more. It was only in 2016 that diplomatic ties between the countries were severed, after a mob torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Now, according to the new agreement, both sides will reopen embassies, and the Saudi government will end its support for the Iran International television channel that Tehran holds responsible for domestic dissent.
Both sides will uphold the April 2022 cease-fire in Yemen and begin work on a formal peace agreement to end the civil war in that country. Iran will cease supplying Houthi rebels with arms and persuade them to halt their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The deal calls for enhanced economic and diplomatic ties between Iran and the GCC countries, and for Iran and its Arab partners to begin discussions on building a new regional security framework. Moreover, China will continue to oversee all of these steps.
The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has the potential to end one of the region’s most significant conflicts, which has fueled tensions and proxy wars across the Middle East for decades. The two countries have been bitter rivals for years, with their animosity stemming from religious and geopolitical differences.
A new Middle East? The consequences to Turkey and Israel
The potential rapprochement between the two countries could have far-reaching consequences for the region, including a potential reduction in the number of conflicts and a more stable political and economic environment. It remains to be seen how the agreement will play out in practice, but it is certainly a positive development for the Middle East as a whole.
The Middle East has long been an arena for great power competition, with countries like the United States and Russia vying for influence in the region. However, in recent years, China has been increasing its involvement in the Middle East, both diplomatically and economically. China’s growing presence in the region could have significant implications for regional dynamics and the balance of power.
In a more balanced way, this would reduce the influence of any one country or group of countries, including the United States, and increase China’s ability to shape regional dynamics to its liking. By engaging with all sides and promoting economic development, China could become a more attractive partner for Middle Eastern countries than the United States, which has long been seen as an unreliable partner due to its frequent intervention in regional conflicts.
The normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia also has implications for other countries in the region, such as Israel and Turkey. Israel, which has been a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their efforts to contain Iran, may see this development as a setback.
Israel has long viewed Iran as its primary regional adversary and has worked to isolate it diplomatically and militarily. The normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia could undermine Israel’s efforts to build a coalition of Arab countries against Iran and may force Israel to rethink its approach to regional security.
Turkey, which has also been involved in regional conflicts such as the war in Syria, may also see the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a positive development. Turkey has had tense relations with Saudi Arabia in recent years, particularly over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and has sought to position itself as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The normalization of relations between the two countries may reduce tensions in the region and create opportunities for Turkey to increase its economic ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The global consequences of the China-led Saudi-Iran reconciliation
Overall, the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has the potential to transform the Middle East and shift the balance of power in the region and potentially in the world in the long-term. By working through China, Iran and Saudi Arabia may be able to reduce their reliance on the United States and build a more stable regional order.
The move also has implications for other countries in the region, such as Israel and Turkey, and could create new opportunities for economic cooperation and development. While there are still many obstacles to overcome, the landmark agreement represents a significant step forward for the region and for China’s global ambitions.