While over the past months, all eyes were fixed on Baghdad for reports of the latest developments in the rapprochement talks between Tehran and Riyadh, Beijing turned out to be the venue from which news of a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the reopening of the embassies emerged, which is indicative of China’s growing status in the Middle East and vice versa.
Grounds for reconstruction of Iran-Saudi ties
The relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have gone through many ups and downs since the victory of the former’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although the relationship saw some improvements in brief periods on the back of efforts aimed at de-escalation, due to the two political systems’ conflicting natures, the U.S. negative role would always have its adverse impact, recreating the tension and crisis in Tehran-Riyadh relations.
However, the ongoing transformation in the world order and its geopolitical outcomes for the Middle East pushed Iran and Saudi Arabia toward resolving their differences in an effort to improve the status quo in the bilateral ties and the Middle East. The rapprochement was achieved in view of a number of facts:
Firstly, the reduction of the U.S. regional influence will be beneficial for the Middle East powers if they are able to manage the regional trends and processes.
Secondly, concurrent with the swiftly unfolding international changes, separatist movements in the region have seen a rise, which fails to be in any of the regional powers’ interests.
Thirdly, although the signing of the Abraham Accords has led to the normalization of some Arab countries’ relations with Israel, it has also presented challenges to them, among which is the question raised by the Arab public opinion that why such a normalization does not take place between the Muslim Arab states and Iran.
Fourthly, China’s increased role in the Middle East has changed the regional countries’ calculations about the redistribution of power, which, per se, has changed the atmosphere of the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And finally, in general, it seems that, regardless of their differences, Tehran and Riyadh agree that the region should not be a center of conflicts and crises.
Nevertheless, owing to the existence of numerous historical cases and issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia, preparing the ground for an agreement on the resumption of normal ties between the two sides required a stronger catalyst. While Iraq had laid the groundwork for the dialogue and agreement between Tehran and Riyadh, China had greater weight for helping the diplomatic process come to fruition owing to its favorable relations with both sides and high international status.
Differences between Middle East approaches of China, U.S.
The premise that China would repeat the same costly and wrong policy of the United States toward the Middle East in the past four decades is fundamentally wrong.
The U.S. costly financial and humanitarian interventions in the Middle East, although having led to the accumulation of money in the bank accounts of a limited number of the American capitalist arms producers, have weakened Washington’s international position.
The Middle East is known as a region with complex interests, woes and challenges. Although using conflicts, gaps and differences among governments may bring about swift but short-term political benefits, it will be accompanied by increased economic and political costs. China does not appear to be willing to try a policy already proven wrong.
China’s simultaneous cooperation with Iran and Saudi Arabia, or even the country’s potential to bring the two sides closer to each other, may even bring to mind the recurrence of the Nixon Doctrine of viewing Saudi Arabia and Iran as “twin pillars” of regional stability, during the Cold War period.
There is no utilitarian motivation and purpose for China in the Middle East. Basically, under the present circumstances, positive balancing looks to be a prominent political motivation behind China’s behavioral pattern toward the Middle East.
This comes as, the United States seeks to, having adopted a competitive approach toward China, portray Beijing as a common enemy of and threat to not only the Middle East, but also the West. This is the same strategy Washington has already implemented toward other states, such as Iran and Russia.
in Middle East
As a matter of fact, the tension in the Middle East is not something that would serve China’s interests.
The Middle East, as an important strategic intersection of trade routes and sea lanes that connects Asia to Europe and Africa, is considered important for the future of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
According to estimates, China’s trade with the Middle East in recent years has far surpassed that of the United States with the region. In 2021, the value of China’s imports from the Middle East stood at 130 billion U.S. dollars, while the U.S. purchases from the region reached 34 billion dollars. Moreover, China’s exports to the region in the same year amounted to 129 billion dollars, up by 81 billion dollars compared to the figure pertaining to the U.S. overseas sales destined for the Middle East, which was of 48 billion dollars. Thanks to Beijing’s economy-oriented approach, the value of China’s investments in the Middle Eastern states also reached the impressive figure of 330 billion dollars in 2021.
In fact, it can be said that avoiding any rise in tensions is China’s behavioral pattern vis-à-vis the Middle East and the country has the necessary tools and credibility to this end. China has growing economic relations with all regional players, which has also led to Beijing’s increased political influence in these countries, although it does not use this political influence to a great extent.
For instance, in terms of the relationship between Iran and other regional countries, Beijing has a good relationship with both sides and, unlike the United States, instead of investing in the existing gaps and turning the game into a zero-sum one, can help expand cooperation among the countries and make the game a positive-sum one.
At present, China, without seeking interference, is proving to be the true manifestation of a “stabilizing power,” the image the United States sought to present of itself through waging wars and intervention for decades.