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Beijing's Iran-Saudi Deal Is No Small Feat; Is The US-led Western Bloc Ready For China?

An agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic relations last week has cast China in a leading role in Middle Eastern politics.

China-Iran-Saudi Arabia

Image: AP/Shutterstock

A pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations has positioned China as a major player in Middle Eastern politics - a role that was previously dominated by established global powers such as the US and Russia. This is an indication that China's diplomatic influence is expanding to align with its economic presence.

With the leadership of strongman Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy has gained notoriety for outbursts of anger towards the West, making threats towards Taiwan, making aggressive moves in the South China Sea, and refusing to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine.

However, the recent agreement reached in Beijing on Friday, which resulted in both parties agreeing to re-establish their embassies and exchange ambassadors after seven years of tensions, displays a different aspect of Chinese diplomacy. It appears that Xi Jinping had a direct hand in the negotiations by hosting the Iranian President during his visit to Beijing last month. Additionally, Xi visited the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, in December to meet with Gulf Arab nations that are vital to China's energy supplies.

The deal was considered a significant diplomatic victory for China, particularly as Gulf Arab nations perceive the United States as gradually reducing its engagement in the Middle East.

“I think it is a sign that China is increasingly confident in taking a more assertive role in the Middle East,” Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an Indonesian academic affiliated with the Washington-based Middle East Institute told AP.

China's economic interests are increasingly leading it into conflicts that are geographically distant. As the largest customer for Middle Eastern energy exports, China has a significant stake in the region's stability. In contrast, the United States has decreased its reliance on energy imports as the country moves towards energy independence.

China is helping fill the US-shaped void in the Middle East

June Teufel Dreyer, a political scientist at the University of Miami who specialises in Chinese politics, told AP that Chinese officials have advocated for a more proactive role for Beijing in the region. Meanwhile, the strained relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has created a void that Beijing is content to fill, according to Dreyer.

China has made significant investments in the area's energy infrastructure and has occasionally dispatched naval vessels to participate in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. However, since the 1980s, the US Navy has been the primary security guarantor for Middle Eastern waters.

China's Foreign Ministry released a statement on Saturday in which an unidentified spokesperson claimed that Beijing has no self-interested motives. “China has no intention to and will not seek to fill so-called vacuum or put up exclusive blocs,” it said, in an apparent reference to the U.S.

At the close of the ceremonial legislature’s annual session Monday, leader Xi Jinping said China should “actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system” and promote “global security initiatives”.

While the United States has been highly critical of China for not denouncing Russia's invasion and for blaming the US and NATO for inciting the conflict, the recent diplomatic triumph demonstrates China's status as an impartial mediator in the eyes of many Middle Eastern governments.

This is due in part to China's robust connections to both Saudi Arabia, its biggest oil supplier, and Iran, which relies on China for 30% of its foreign trade and has received a commitment from China to invest $400 billion over the next 25 years. Iran, which is hampered by sanctions related to its nuclear programme, sells oil to China at a significant discount.

China has been increasing its military co-operation with Middle Eastern countries, including through arms sales and joint military exercises. China has also established a military base in Djibouti, which is strategically located near the Middle East.

The strained ties between Saudi Arabia & Iran

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been characterised by tension and conflict for many decades. Some key factors that have contributed to this strained relationship include:

  • Sectarian differences: Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country, while Iran is a Shiite Muslim country. This has contributed to tensions between the two countries, as they have often supported opposing sides in regional conflicts.
  • Geopolitical rivalry: Saudi Arabia and Iran are both major regional powers and have vied for influence in the Middle East. They have supported opposing sides in conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and the Yemeni civil war.
  • Historical and cultural differences: Saudi Arabia is an Arab country, while Iran is Persian. They have different historical and cultural backgrounds, which has contributed to their differences.
  • Economic competition: Saudi Arabia and Iran are both major oil producers, and they have competed for market share in the global oil market. This competition has sometimes led to tensions between the two countries.

Despite these tensions, there have been some attempts at reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent years. And China finally succeeded last week on Friday. 

(with AP inputs)

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