Renewed relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are driving new calculations in the Middle East

The surprise announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, thanks to a deal brokered by Beijing, underscores the interest of regional governments in easing tensions, and China’s willingness to use its economic influence to achieve it.

While observers, particularly US officials, caution against giving Beijing too much credit for the deal announced Friday, the rapprochement could also be seen as a wake-up call for Washington with the potential to upend its longstanding calculations and relationships. Middle East.

The creation of an alliance against Iran has united the United States and many countries in the region, and even had the once-unthinkable result of boosting diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states that previously refused to recognize Israel’s existence.

But renewed tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, after more than seven years of sometimes bellicose hostility, signal that US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia are increasingly willing to go their own way. Hopes that the oil-rich kingdom might even join other Arab countries such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in recognizing Israel over a shared fear of Iran now appear doubtful.

Still, Biden administration officials were quick to praise the diplomatic breakthrough, which, if carried out, could ease the direct and proxy conflicts plaguing the Middle East. U.S. officials also sought to downplay China’s role, saying Iraq and other Gulf states were also involved, and noting it was not a deal the U.S. could orchestrate because Washington itself has no formal relationship with Tehran.

“When it comes to our role in the region … I have a hard time wrapping my head around ‘our role can be replaced’ when no country on Earth has done more to build a more stable, more integrated region.” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

But China’s growing role in the Middle East, following its intense economic and diplomatic activities in Africa and Latin America, has become a geopolitical reality that confronts the US and the West.

This is especially true for Iran, whose economy crippled by sanctions has seen China as its main trading partner for the past decade. In 2021, he signed a deal for $400 billion in Chinese investment over 25 years in exchange for oil. Trade between the two countries is expected to exceed $15 billion in 2022, up 7 percent from last year, Chinese officials said.

China had $87.3 billion in trade with Saudi Arabia in 2021, making it Riyadh’s top trading partner that year. During a bilateral summit in December, the two countries signed seven infrastructure deals totaling $1 billion. Saudi Arabia was the single largest recipient of Chinese investment under Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure financing initiative at $5.5 billion in the first half of 2022, according to the Shanghai Center for Green Finance and Development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Dec. 8.

(Saudi Press Agency)

“We are not trying to match the PRC [People’s Republic of China] dollar for dollar with the money they’re providing to, let’s call it, infrastructure projects around the world,” Price said when pressed about the perceived weakening of US influence. “In some ways we couldn’t do that, given that they have a state economy and a command economy that we don’t have.”

In a statement on Friday, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia praised the “honest initiative” that would allow Tehran and Riyadh to reopen their embassies in the next two months. Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi took a photo with Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Mossad bin Mohammed Ayban.

Some analysts said the deal wasn’t as big a surprise as it might have seemed at first.

The two countries have shown a willingness to engage in diplomacy since 2021, as the groundwork for restoring relations was laid at five summits in Iraq and Oman, said Esfandyar Batmanghelij, executive director of the London-based Bourse and Bazaar Foundation. based think tank.

China was not present at those negotiations.

“Although it seemed like an unexpected arrangement, we have to have some confidence that it will stick because it is part of a longer process that has come to a head,” he said. “The amazing thing is that the Chinese proposed a mediation platform and both sides signed it in Beijing.”

Letting China take the initiative, and the credit, for the latest push represented a rebuke of sorts to Washington, said Jonathan Fulton, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. And by deliberately excluding the United States, the Saudis, in particular, can demonstrate their intention to diversify their supporters and interests.

Saudis and Iranians “say. “Look, there’s another great power that can do something to us,” Fulton said, adding that the region’s overriding concern is development and the economy rather than picking sides in the great power rivalry.

“They want to work with great powers that stabilize the region, and the perception is that the US has taken a very security-focused approach,” he said.

Where the US has generally used economic coercion, largely sanctions, to change behavior in the region while benefiting its allies, China has used its position as a leading energy importer and regional investor as leverage.

“China’s message is: “We will not choose a favorite. We want to be economically involved and invest in your prosperity, and as part of that we want to promote [you] take into account Chinese interests,” Batmanghelij said. “And those interests that China does not want a conflict between these countries because it depends on energy exports through the Persian Gulf.”

The deal faces many questions, not the least of which is how far both governments will go to reverse a full severance and whether its dividends will extend to Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, countries where Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads over political or through paramilitary forces. proxies.

The biggest advance may be in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iran-backed Houthi militias since 2015, which in turn regularly fire ballistic missiles across Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia. A statement from Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations said the agreement would accelerate a ceasefire, start a national dialogue and lead to an “inclusive national government” in Yemen.

While the deal signals a more active role for Beijing, it also shows Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is less beholden to US interests.

The Biden administration has clashed with Riyadh several times recently. In addition to the killing of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Biden clashed with Saudi officials when they refused to increase oil production because Russian energy was shunned. the war in Ukraine.

John Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US is grappling with how to deal with Saudi Arabia, long its most important ally in the Gulf region but now a less credible actor in Washington’s eyes. .

“The US government is hesitant about the Saudis seeking new partners,” Alterman said on the center’s website. “It wants the Saudis to take more responsibility for their own security, but it doesn’t want Saudi Arabia to run free and undermine US security strategies.”

Boulos reports from Beirut and Wilkinson from Washington.

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