China: Sustaining the Saudi-Iran Deal

Apparently, the process of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran has taken a new turn since China’s entry. It is anticipated that the newly signed agreement between Riyadh and Tehran will significantly alter the geopolitics of the Middle East. The deal brokered by China has reintegrated Tehran into the mainstream of regional politics, after years of isolation due to heavy sanctions. Saudi Arabia is also optimistic that the agreement will prevent future attacks against its regional interests. Since no details about the recent deal have surfaced in the media, the general consensus regarding the significance of the said deal is overwhelmingly divided.

China: The New Mediator

Some contend that the development is significant and has far-reaching consequences for the region.

This is the first time China has replaced the United States in this region to broker an agreement.

From the Camp David Accords in 1978 to the Abraham Accords in 2020, the United States was the only negotiator. Given the long-standing conflicts in the region and the intricate geopolitics of the Middle East and West Asia, however, this particular development will not have a significant impact on others. Nonetheless, it is of the utmost importance to comprehend the sustainability factor under Chinese supervision, as the US and European countries’ track record of mediation in the region has been disappointing. Whether China can ensure the sustainability of the Saudi-Iran agreement is, therefore, a million-dollar question.

Beijing was neither a negotiator nor a guarantor, which must be understood prior to seeking an answer to the question posed above. Rather, it facilitated communication between the two parties in order to finalize an agreement that had been pending since 2016. This should not be viewed as a battle in which the US failed and China emerged as the winner. Instead, the success was born out of three factors: growing pressure on the Iranian regime; seemingly cold ties between Riyadh and Washington; and third, the US’s lackluster approach towards the region. Tehran’s frustration is quite understandable, as the appalling economic conditions have sparked several protests in the country, especially the recent one over the death of Masha Amini, in which Western media, especially US media, played a devil’s role. Similarly, the cold ties between Riyadh and Washington for the past few years also factored into preparing the ground for US substitution.

The US’s lackluster approach towards the Middle East and particularly the Saudi-Iran rapprochement can largely be attributed to Washington’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. Given that, China’s entry amid growing uncertainties around the Saudi-Iran rapprochement was unsurprising. For its part, China has always been concerned with Saudi-Iran tensions since both countries are the largest trade partners of Beijing, and peace between the two arch-rivals can only serve Beijing’s core economic interests in the region.

The Non-Partisan Friend

However, Beijing’s role at this juncture is more or less the same as what Islamabad played out back in 1971 in the US-China rapprochement, which was limited to facilitating the talks between the two countries and thus barely impacting the transformation of their relations from hostile to cordial ones. Likewise, China exercised its influence in bringing Riyadh and Tehran to the negotiation table. But it would be premature to claim that Beijing could bring a paradigm shift in both countries’ relations since normalization is not only a lengthy but challenging process too, and the recent agreement was a first step on the rocky path.

Realistically speaking, it was easier for China to convince both Iran and Saudi Arabia since Beijing was not only a common but also a non-partisan friend.

Furthermore, it was more the economic leverage that enabled Beijing to facilitate an agreement between the two regional foes. However, the continuity of normalization requires both political will and the expertise to deal with the complex sectarian, religious, and ethnic divisions in the region, and Beijing is generally lacking on both fronts. One can only hope for a decline in proxy politics in the region, particularly in Yemen. But it is equally important to know that most of the regional conflicts involve several potential stakeholders and non-state actors other than Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For instance, in Yemen, the conflict is primarily between the Yemenis, who are divided into several groups, and some of them are working independently of Riyadh and Tehran’s dictations. Given that, the settlement is not a piece of cake. Both Riyadh and Tehran have to work in tandem to conclude an indigenous solution that could be acceptable to Yemenis as well. Here China’s modest influence over several potential stakeholders involved in the Saudi-Iran nexus can potentially limit its role as a potential mediator. Moreover, the failure of Riyadh and Iran to address the grievances of various parties involved in perennial conflicts might unnecessarily drag China into the geopolitical quagmire of the Middle East. That said, it is not going to be a low-risk engagement for China, as argued by Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington.

The Road to Normalization

Summing up, the sustainability of the Saudi-Iran agreement broadly depends on three factors: one, how Beijing plays an effective role in the challenging times; two, how much Iran and Saudi Arabia show flexibility in their hardline stances practically; and third, how the geopolitics of the region evolved in the wake of the US and Israel’s future Middle East policies. Nevertheless, the onus is on Riyadh and Tehran to keep the process of normalization immune from spoilers. For its part, China enjoys cordial relations with both Riyadh and Tehran and would continue to persuade both Riyadh and Tehran to maintain friendly relations even if the deal reaches an unexpected end.

Since normalization is a lengthy and tricky process, wider appreciation and support from regional and extra-regional countries is indispensable, as China alone cannot ensure the sustainability of the Saudi-Iran deal.

To consolidate what Beijing has sought, the role of Pakistan is crucial, since Islamabad time and again has tried to dial down the tensions between the two countries and offered its good offices. Similarly, favorable support from the US can also help ensure the smooth sailing of the normalization process.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.

Syed Imran Sardar
Syed Imran Sardar
Syed Imran Sardar is an author and senior research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies (IRS), Islamabad. He tweets @maan_sardar and he can be reached at [email protected]

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