China’s Role in Restoring Saudi Arabia-Iran Ties
The restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran — two long-time adversaries in the Middle East — earlier this month in Beijing is further proof of China’s rising global influence, analysts said.
Sun Degang, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Fudan University, believes the recent significant breakthrough in Beijing also highlights China’s “unique political status as well as diplomatic appeal and influence.”
If the reconciliation agreement that followed seven years after severing diplomatic relations can be fully implemented, many believe it would help consolidate the fragile ceasefire reached in Yemen’s brutal civil war, boost Lebanon’s battered economy and promote stability and development in countries such as Iraq and Syria, which have long been affected by proxy wars between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
While reaching an agreement will by no means resolve the long-standing conflicts between the two countries, the agreement itself will help curb the chances of an “indirect war” escalating into a “hot war.”
China’s established comprehensive strategic partnerships and long-term cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as being the largest trading partner and major crude oil buyer of both, has some unique advantages that could help facilitate the reconciliation between the two Middle Eastern countries, according to Sun.
Faced with the conflicts in the Middle East, China advocates for promoting security through cooperation and resolution through dialogue. “This is something that Western countries cannot match with their ideological divisions and ‘taking sides’ mindset in diplomacy,” Sun stated.
Beijing as a middleman
At the end of 2022, Saudi Arabia welcomed President Xi Jinping for a state visit, marking Xi’s first trip to the Middle East in six years.
In the Saudi capital Riyadh, Xi and nearly 20 Arab leaders attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the first China-Gulf Arab States Cooperation Committee Summit.
In a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Xi said China places the development of relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority in the country’s overall diplomatic agenda, especially within its Middle East diplomacy.
Xi added that China is willing to strengthen communication and coordination with Saudi Arabia on international and regional affairs, while the Crown Prince stated Saudi Arabia is willing to closely cooperate with China on major regional hotspot issues and contribute to regional peace and common security.
Although official statements between the two did not mention the specific regional hotspot issue of Saudi-Iranian tensions, a Wall Street Journal report said China proposed that the Gulf Arab countries should ease tensions with Iran at the 2022 summit in Riyadh. The proposal was supported by Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the report said.
Subsequently in early 2023, Iran sent its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, to visit Beijing, the Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper quoted unnamed Gulf officials saying Bagheri proposed China play a more important role in Iran’s nuclear negotiations with other major powers and provide support for Iran’s domestic currency crisis. In exchange, Iran agreed not to set any preconditions for talks on resuming diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
From Feb. 14 to Feb. 16, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made his first visit to China since taking office. Officials accompanying him included the country’s newly appointed central bank governor and six cabinet members in the fields of economy, oil, diplomacy, trade, transportation, urban development and agriculture, as well as Bagheri.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani, who held talks with Saudi Arabia, said in an interview after the agreement was reached that Raisi’s visit to China in February and the conversation between the two countries’ leaders “provided the basis for the formation of new and very serious negotiations between the delegations of Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
According to a statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the Beijing talks were held “in response to Xi’s initiative on China’s support for the development of friendly relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
After the talks, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said Xi “has given unequivocal support for the dialogue from the start.”
Ding Long, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, told Caixin that the most significant feature of the joint statement released by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing is that the text was not in English, but Arabic, Persian and Chinese. “This reflects the autonomy of the three countries,” he said.
The document that came out of the Beijing talks is still principled and framework-oriented, indicating that specific issues concerning Saudi Arabia and Iran have yet to be fully resolved.
Ding believes China’s willingness to be one of the signatories of the joint statement under such circumstances demonstrates a sense of responsibility as a major power. He thinks the fact that the agreement to restore bilateral relations was signed and released by three countries highlights China’s role as a key mediator as well as a guarantor.
“This means that if there are any disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the future, or if there are any problems in subsequent negotiations, China will continue to mediate,” Ding said.
China becomes proactive
In the past, China has provided political support for Middle Eastern hotspot issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Iranian nuclear negotiations and the Syrian crisis. However, compared to traditional great powers such as the U.S. and Russia, which have long been involved in the Middle East, China’s mediation role in the region has been relatively low-key.
Why is China now more proactively engaging in the mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Experts interviewed by Caixin said the Middle East is an important energy corridor for China and a pivotal point for the Belt and Road Initiative, while Middle Eastern countries are increasingly looking to China as a world-class power, expecting it to play a more significant diplomatic role.
In recent years, the attention of traditional major powers toward the Middle East has gradually diminished, as has their ability and willingness to provide security for the region. Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Moscow and Western countries have shifted their diplomatic focus to Europe, providing an opportunity for China to further exert its influence in Middle Eastern affairs.
Wu Sike, a former Chinese special envoy on Middle East issues and diplomat, noted that with China’s rising power, there is a growing desire for Middle Eastern countries to develop relations with the nation.
However, he said the U.S. maintains a strong military presence and power investment in the Middle East — areas where China has neither the ability nor the willingness to replace the U.S. On the other hand, Middle Eastern countries view China as a “peaceful, stable and reliable force.”
Professor Ding from Shanghai International Studies University thinks China’s increasing role in the Middle East is “ conducive to regional stability and peace because China will not engage in ‘taking sides.’”
He added that “China is definitely not trying to fill the so-called void left by the United States because the ways China and the U.S. operate in the Middle East are completely different.”
Joseph Albert Kéchichian, a senior researcher at the Saudi think tank King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, told Caixin that if China wants to shape its role in the Middle East and ensure a long-term stable presence, it must “fully participate” in Middle Eastern affairs and invest in “key regional countries led by Saudi Arabia.”
He thinks Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Arab world and the world’s largest oil producer, will play an increasingly important role in regional and international affairs in the future.
What does the future hold?
Ding believes that countries such as Bahrain and Sudan, which severed ties with Iran in 2016, are expected to follow suit and restore diplomatic relations, further improving Iran’s relations with the entire Gulf Arab world.
According to Sun, such relation improvements should be the next direction of focus for China’s diplomacy in the region. However, he also warned that the Middle East has always been one of the most conflict-ridden regions globally, and resolving regional conflicts cannot be achieved overnight, adding that China should take its involvement “one step at time.”
At the same time, China should actively use United Nations mechanisms and communicate with other major powers, making the resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts part of major power coordination and China’s unique major power diplomacy, Sun said.
Wu recalled that when he served as the special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs, he often told countries in the region that “we cannot choose our neighbors, but we can choose the way we live with them.”
He added that China has always advocated for harmony and promoted peace talks among Middle Eastern countries while also supporting them in adhering to strategic autonomy and taking their destiny into their own hands.
“We cannot overstep our boundaries, but we can play a positive role in promoting peace. In the future, China will continue to contribute such constructive forces in the Middle East,” Wu said.
However, Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, is concerned that the prospects for maintaining this reconciliation agreement remain fragile. Including the proxies supported by the two countries in the region, “every stakeholder whose interests may be jeopardized by this agreement has a strong motive to sabotage it.”
Moreover, Israel — which has long been hostile to Iran — and the United States, which wants to bring together countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel to jointly confront Iran, could become factors that interfere with the process of repairing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“The ultimate question will come down to whether Tehran and Riyadh have sufficient political will to resist possible Israeli provocations and to restrain their proxies and propaganda agencies to avoid the occurrence of accidental incidents,” Alfoneh said.
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