The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has been characterized by conflict for many decades. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the major drivers of this instability. Both countries have been engaged in a long-standing power struggle, which has played out in proxy conflicts in various regional countries, such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
In Yemen, for example, the Houthi rebels, who have been fighting against the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, were supported by Iran. The Yemeni government was backed by Saudi Arabia. The conflict has caused widespread destruction and a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of people killed and forced to flee their homes.
In Syria, Iran has supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia has supported various Islamist groups.
In Iraq, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have supported opposing sectarian groups. Iran has supported Shia militias, while Saudi Arabia has backed Sunni Islamist groups. This involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq has exacerbated sectarian tensions, which have caused instability in the country.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have also been involved in Lebanon through various means, including political support, financial aid, and supporting various factions within the country. Iran has supported the Shia military and political organization Hezbollah, while Saudi Arabia has supported Sunni political parties. This involvement of both countries has exacerbated the historical sectarian divisions within the country and resulted in social and political instability.
Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has had a significant impact on neighboring countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been particularly affected by the proxy conflict between the two countries. Both countries have extremist and militant groups that support either Iran or Saudi Arabia. These proxy conflicts have exacerbated sectarian tensions and the already unstable security situation in both countries.
China’s role in the Middle East is also shaped by its own interests. China faces a complex diplomatic challenge in the region. On the one hand, China recognizes the importance of the Middle East for its energy security, economic interests, and the role it plays in discussions on sovereignty, intervention, and relations among major powers. On the other hand, China’s increasing competition with the United States has led it to prioritize its attention and efforts towards Asia.
Chinese diplomatic involvement in the Middle East has been a long-standing occurrence, aiming to promote peace and stability in the region while addressing prominent issues. This approach has been instrumental in securing continuous access to regional resources and markets.
In 2002, China appointed a special envoy to focus on Middle Eastern matters. Until recently, China maintained a low-profile approach, avoiding publicizing its activities in the region to avoid any perception of infringing upon the traditionally established role of the United States.
However, due to escalating tensions in the past few years, exacerbated by the United States’ strategic neglect of the region and strained relations between Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and President Joe Biden, China has begun to play a more prominent role in Middle East affairs.
The attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil fields served as a stark reminder to China of the potential risks posed by the ongoing conflict, particularly in terms of energy security. Given that Saudi Arabia is China’s largest oil supplier, any threat to Saudi Arabia directly impacts Chinese interests.
Additionally, the Chinese government recognizes that the success of their flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), hinges on the security and stability of the regions involved. Therefore, ensuring a safe and stable environment along the BRI project is of paramount importance for the well-being of Chinese companies and workers.
Chinese mediation in conflicts in the Middle East is seen as a component of Xi’s vision to enhance China’s global standing by 2049 and establish an alternative to the United States’ dominant role in global governance. It aims to play a more constructive role on the global stage. Furthermore, these efforts are intended to portray China as a responsible global actor, working towards the well-being of the broader global community, and gaining recognition for its achievements in conflict resolution.
The recent geopolitical shift in the Middle East, resulting from the China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is considered a significant diplomatic achievement for China. This shift has been in progress since January 2021, when Saudi Arabia and Iran began engaging with each other. In the same month, the blockade of Qatar came to an end as a result of the Al Ula Summit, which played a crucial role in mending the rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The United States has consistently emphasized the need for resolving regional rivalries in the Middle East, but has not yet orchestrated a successful deal. China’s diplomatic success in brokering this agreement can be attributed to two key factors.
Firstly, since 2021, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been increasingly looking towards the east for economic opportunities. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, Asia is expected to receive approximately 78 percent of Saudi crude exports in 2021. Presently, China imports over 50 percent of its crude oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Similarly, Iran also imports more than half a million barrels of crude oil per day from China. By providing a lucrative market for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has gained the privilege of influencing the policies of both nations.
Secondly, both Saudi Arabia and Iran hold a sense of respect and goodwill towards China. This amicable attitude has facilitated China’s role as a successful and influential mediator.
The recent agreement led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two rivals, resulting in the reopening of embassies in each other’s capitals.
Following successful mediation, Chinese officials expressed their commitment to continuously supporting both sides in fostering positive relations. They also called upon the international community to assist Middle Eastern countries in resolving their differences.
This agreement holds the potential to facilitate dialogue and broader discussions among the Gulf Arab states and Iran, thereby addressing security concerns in the Middle East.
Furthermore, it is expected to have a positive impact on the war in Yemen, as the major sponsors of the conflict have agreed to halt their support for warring groups involved.
Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia agreed to reduce its support for media networks that oppose the Khomeini regime, while Iran pledged to limit its arms supply to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
With the normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, smaller Gulf states, which were previously hesitant to engage with Iran due to Saudi Arabia, can now establish healthy diplomatic relations with Iran.
Consequently, this agreement is expected to reduce sectarian tensions, a major cause of instability in the region.
The determining factor for evaluating the effectiveness of the agreement will be whether both parties fulfill their commitment to refrain from interfering in the internal politics of the countries in the region.
*The writer is a student of political science at university of Sargodha and freelance columnist.
**The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the claims made in this article.