Shifting Middle Eastern sands

THE unexpected thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a major diplomatic triumph for China. In a rapprochement mediated by Beijing, the two archrivals, which had been engaged in a bitter proxy war in the Middle East for the past several years, have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and ease tensions.

The agreement demonstrates the growing assertion of China’s clout in one of the world’s most volatile regions. It also highlights the changing global order, with China playing a bigger role on the world stage.

The détente comes at a time of increasing rivalry between the two superpowers America and China, which threatens to push the world towards a new Cold War. Many analysts describe the agreement signed by the two sides in Beijing last week as an indication of waning US influence in the region. The deal may not bring an end to the deep-rooted rivalry between the two regional powers but it can certainly end discord and open the way for a peaceful resolution of conflicts in the region.

The two countries have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties and reopen their respective missions within two months. The agreement also affirmed “the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states”. Significantly, the trilateral statement released in Beijing last week has also mentioned the 2001 security agreement and the broader 1998 cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Tehran and Riyadh have been locked in a fierce battle for supremacy in the Middle East region for decades. The two have been fighting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But the intensification of the civil war in Yemen turned into a flashpoint over the last few years, threatening a wider regional conflagration.

The Saudi-Iran détente comes at a time of increasing rivalry between America and China.

While Saudi Arabia has supported Yemen’s government forces, the Houthi rebels have been backed by Iran. The Yemeni civil war spilled over into Saudi Arabia, with rebel forces targeting oil facilities inside the kingdom. The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, leading a mob in Iran to ransack the Saudi embassy there in protest. That also ended cooperation between the two countries in various fields.

Iran’s nuclear programme has also been a major Saudi security concern, intensifying the rivalry between the two Gulf countries. Their anti-Iran positions had also brought Saudi Arabia and Israel closer. Not surprisingly, both welcomed the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.

Over the past few years, Riyadh has been sending out signals that it was ready for greater cooperation with Israel. The kingdom tacitly supported the recognition of Israel by the UAE and some other Gulf countries. But the fear of a backlash from extremist elements stopped Riyadh from openly establishing official relations with Tel Aviv.

Saudi Arabia has long been America’s staunchest Middle East ally. Though the kingdom has remained dependent on Washington for its security, ties between the two cooled under the Biden administration. The frosty reception given to President Joe Biden during his visit to Riyadh last year was a clear message from the de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that it would not be business as usual.

This was in part a reaction to strong criticism by President Biden regarding the alleged role of the crown prince in the murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. In contrast, President Xi Jinping of China was accorded a red carpet welcome when he visited Riyadh last December. The growing Beijing-Riyadh ties are also dictated by bilateral economic interests. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with the kingdom being a major supplier of oil to the former.

Riyadh’s move towards reconciliation with Iran is also driven by the crown prince’s Vision 2030 that envisages the diversification of the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy by attracting foreign investments. It also calls for cultural openness of the conservative society.

Meanwhile, there has been a strengthening of bilateral relations between Beijing and Tehran in the past years, with the tightening of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic. China considers Iran strategically important in the changing politics of the region. In 2021, China signed an agreement for an investment of more than $40 billion in infrastructure development in exchange for oil. The Iranian president was given a rousing reception when he visited Beijing earlier this year.

These developments gave China huge diplomatic clout and it played a mediating role between the two bitter rivals. Last week’s agreement was reached after days of secret parleys between Saudi and Iranian officials, facilitated by Beijing. The landmark deal reflects the shifting sands of regional geopolitics. It is also a personal triumph for Chinese President Xi.

The dramatic diplomatic breakthrough came as he was elected for his third term. Being president, party leader and chairman of the Chinese military makes President Xi the most powerful leader in China’s recent history. It gives him absolute power to determine the future course of the country. Under him, there has been significant projection of Chinese power. Internationally, China is now playing a more proactive role. Washington’s move to contain China has further hardened Beijing’s stance. Relations between the US and China have worsened in recent times.

China is now not only challenging US economic leadership far more intensely than before but is also asserting itself more forcefully on the global stage. Its growing economic and political power is seen as a threat to American domination.

President Xi’s ambition of propelling China to centre stage of the global power game represents a sharp departure from the approach of previous Chinese leaders who strictly adhered to the policy of not taking the lead in global conflicts. Focusing its energies on development helped the country become an economic superpower. But now, China is also taking a lead in global affairs. The latest deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran indicates China’s growing assertiveness on the global stage. Beijing’s increasingly proactive role is likely to alter the existing world order.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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