Saturday, November 4, 2023

China’s Role in Iran-Saudi Deal and the Changing Global Order


China has played a key role in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with analysts suggesting that this is a sign of a “changing global order”. The two countries have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months, and have affirmed “the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states”. China’s role as mediator had not been made public prior to the announcement. The country’s senior diplomat, Wang Yi, said that China will continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues and demonstrate responsibility as a major nation.

The two Gulf countries severed ties in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia Muslim scholar, triggering protests in Iran with protesters attacking its embassy in Tehran. However, geopolitical conflict between the two goes back decades. Both sides have stood on opposing sides and engaged in proxy wars in many conflict zones in the Middle East. In Yemen, with the war now well into its eighth year, the Houthi rebels are backed by Tehran, while Riyadh leads a military coalition in support of the government. Since 2021, talks have been held between both sets of officials in Iraq and Oman but no deals were reached.

Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, DC, said that the brokered deal is evidence of a growing Chinese presence and its increased interest in playing a role in the region. As the United States does not have good relations with Iran, China is “in a good position to broker an agreement”. Sina Toossi, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, said that China has “a clear interest” in improving ties and stability in the region as the Gulf is a vital source of energy for Beijing, which imports energy from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, said that the US “increasingly has deviated from and increasingly pursued policies that simply make it impossible for it to be a credible mediator”. “The US is increasingly taking sides in regional conflicts, becoming co-belligerent in regional conflicts which makes it very difficult for the US to play a peacemaking role,” Parsi said. “China did not take sides between Saudi and Iran, has worked very hard to not get dragged into their conflict and as a result, could play a peacemaking role.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia have fought proxy wars in the region for decades, affecting Syria, Iraq Lebanon and Yemen. While the now normalised relations between the two are not going to automatically solve their vast geopolitical differences, Toossi said there is now “an opportunity for increased and sustained dialogue that could help bridge these differences”.

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