The recent resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has raised numerous questions inside and outside the Middle East. Many speculate about potential repercussions for regional stability and the balance of power. While much attention has been focused on the policies and motivations of the two countries themselves regarding reconciliation, it is also crucial to consider the role of external actors in shaping and bringing about such an extraordinary and evolving reconciliation. One of these actors is the People’s Republic of China, which has growing economic and strategic interests in the region and pursues a more peaceful and determined foreign policy to serve its economic interests. In recent years, Beijing has played an important role in mediating regional conflicts, such as those in Syria and Palestine, as well as internationally, offering mediation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war. Chinese officials have repeatedly called for peaceful dialogue and de-escalation, demonstrating a cautious and balanced approach, especially when events that threaten international peace and security occur.
Chinese Mediation: Causes and Connotations
Mediation can be defined as a process in which a neutral third party assists two or more disputing parties in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. The mediator facilitates communication between the parties, helps them identify common interests, understand each other’s views, and generate options to resolve their differences. In the context of Saudi-Iranian relations, China acted as a mediator to facilitate talks between the two countries. China’s participation in the reconciliation process was significant because it demonstrated the country’s growing diplomatic capabilities and willingness to play a more prominent role in global affairs.
Thus, it is important to note that China’s role in the Middle East is driven not only by altruism but also by pragmatism. Beijing’s policies, whether internal or external, are influenced by the Middle East’s importance as a supplier of energy resources and a market for Chinese goods. Furthermore, China has made significant investments in infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, China has a vested interest in promoting stability and security in the region to ensure and enhance its economic situation. However, China’s growing presence in the Middle East has raised concerns among the United States and its allies, who view it as a potential challenge to their interests and influence. Saudi Arabia’s deepening relationship with China and Russia, in particular, has caused concern in Washington as the kingdom seeks greater independence from U.S. policy.
Similarly, China’s extensive ties with Iran, especially in the energy sector, have caught the attention of Israel, which sees Iran as a significant security threat. Israel is known to be actively engaged in covert operations and diplomatic efforts to isolate Tehran in an attempt to counter Iran’s regional influence. This was exemplified by Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 and his desire to create an Arab-Israeli NATO to contain Iran, which was met with Saudi rejection.
The resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia presents challenges and opportunities for China. While it could help stabilize the region and create new opportunities for economic cooperation, it could also further complicate China’s relations with the United States and its allies in Southeast Asia. China’s mediation in the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia sends a message to the world that it is becoming an increasingly important player in global affairs. Through successful mediation between two longtime rivals in the Middle East, China is demonstrating its diplomatic capabilities and ability to project influence beyond its immediate neighborhood.
Saudi-Iranian Reconciliation: Understanding the Motives and Causes
For decades, the international community has closely monitored the longstanding tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While the recent reconciliation between the two countries is a positive development, the factors behind their hostility remain complex and multifaceted. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran strategically located in a critical region, have long sought to exert and assert influence in the Middle East. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution transformed the regional balance of power, challenging Saudi Arabia’s status as a prominent Islamic power in the region and igniting an ongoing competition for regional influence between the two countries.
In addition to geopolitical considerations, sectarian differences have fueled the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Saudi Arabia promotes Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, Iran simultaneously promotes Shia Islam and the principle of velayat-e faqih, which asserts that a prominent Shiite cleric should have political power and authority over all Muslims.
Furthermore, historical and ideological differences have exacerbated tensions between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, while Iran is an Islamic republic with a complex system of governance that blends elements of democracy and theocracy. Additionally, both countries possess vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Alongside these factors that contribute to the tense relationship between the two countries, it is also important to understand Iran’s motives and its strong desire for reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s willingness to reconcile can be attributed to various factors, including the country’s growing isolation and internal pressures. Despite its attempts to suppress domestic protests, the Iranian government has been unable to quell public anger toward its policies, such as strict dress codes and increasing government repression. This has put significant pressure on Tehran, which realizes that easing Western sanctions is unlikely in the near future. A potential way out of this impasse is to reach a Chinese-brokered deal with Saudi Arabia, which could help alleviate some of Iran’s domestic pressures. However, it is important to note that this agreement may not be sufficient to suppress the protests and would require a change in policy approaches toward the overall human rights situation.
The recent wave of protests in Iran, which gained momentum in late 2022, witnessed a new level of unity among the country’s diverse population, particularly following the murder of the young Iranian Kurd, Mahsa Amini. Men and women from all ethnicities marched under the banner of women’s rights, recognizing that women’s freedom translates to freedom for all. This movement was marked by the use of slogans such as “Jin, Jian, Azadi!” (which means “woman, life, freedom!” in Kurdish) and “Zan, Zindaji, Azadi!” (which conveys the same meaning in Persian). While the Iranian government has attempted to quash the protests, the continued opposition suggests that the underlying issues are unlikely to be resolved through repression alone. Instead, in order to address the root causes of the ongoing protests, the government may need to respond to the concerns of its citizens and work towards greater political and economic stability.
Iran’s deteriorating economy also poses a major challenge to Iranian policymakers, exacerbated by sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union countries. This has hampered Iran’s ability to trade and attract foreign investment, leading to the depreciation of the Iranian rial. In this context, a Chinese-brokered deal with Saudi Arabia could provide Iran with a much-needed economic lifeline. Iran’s struggling economy will acquire a new lifeline and investment, and allow increased trade and foreign investment, which could help stabilize the Iranian currency and create new jobs for Iranians. Investment and trade opportunities may also contribute to Iran’s economic growth and development.
Another prominent factor behind the goal of reconciliation for both Iran and Saudi Arabia is countering Israel’s growing influence in the GCC region and the Middle East more generally through the Abraham Accords. Moreover, the ongoing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have facilitated the formation of an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran itself, and that alliance could not have been more appropriate had it not agreed. However, it should be noted that this idea was rejected by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in July 2022. As a result, it is important to recognize that the resolution of all contentious issues between the two countries is not guaranteed, and a moment of maturity must be reached. While the resumption of diplomatic relations is a positive development, it does not necessarily mean that solutions to deep-rooted issues such as the Iranian nuclear file or the situation in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon should not be sought. If positive consensus is reached on these thorny issues, it will be an important step for Iranian-Arab relations, the Middle East, and the broader geopolitical landscape from the moment diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia resume. The impact of this move, as well as the role of external actors in the region, cannot be overestimated. Such a development indicates that Saudi Arabia is willing to take a more proactive approach to regional politics and pursue its interests in a more precise and rational manner. It also marks a departure from the country’s traditional reliance on U.S. policy, which could have far-reaching consequences for the wider Middle East and the policies of major world powers with different interests in the region.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has taken several important steps toward independence from U.S. politics. The move has different motives, including a desire to reduce dependence on the United States, pursue its regional interests, and diversify its relations with other world powers, such as China and Russia. One of the most important indicators of Saudi Arabia’s transition toward independence from U.S. policy is its rejection of U.S. pressure to normalize relations with Israel. This position represents a break with the traditional U.S. approach to the Middle East, which has consistently emphasized the importance of Israel as a key strategic ally. By taking a more nuanced approach to its relationship with Israel, Saudi Arabia positions itself as a regional power willing to pursue its interests independently of U.S. foreign policy.
Another signal of Saudi Arabia’s independence from U.S. policy is its resistance to U.S. pressure to increase oil production and compliance with OPEC Plus decisions. This stance reflects Saudi Arabia’s desire to maintain control over oil production and export policies rather than yielding to U.S. demands for increased production. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s balanced and carefully calculated position on the Ukraine war has led to a close relationship with Russia based on growing common economic and political interests. The growing relationship between Saudi Arabia and China, coupled with the successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, culminating in the historic agreement between the two countries, has turned the expectations and bets of the Americans and Israelis upside down, forcing them to reassess their decisions about an impending war with Iran. A U.S.-Israeli war on Iran would harm Gulf interests and threaten Arab national security. By pursuing these strategies, Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as a more assertive and independent regional power, ready to take bold steps to pursue its interests on the world stage. This trend is likely to continue in the coming years as Saudi Arabia seeks to strengthen its regional power and diversify its relations with other global as well as regional powers, which will have implications for the reality of that region of the international system and its dynamism. It may even contribute to changing that system itself.
Saudi-Iranian reconciliation: Possible scenarios
Saudi Arabia and Iran have announced their intention to restore diplomatic ties that were severed in 2016, surprising many Western officials and analysts. It was also revealed that China played a significant role in achieving this reconciliation. In this context, there are three scenarios for the post-Saudi-Iranian reconciliation period.
- Successful progress and regional political and economic stability
Following the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is a possibility of a new era of regional cooperation and understanding. As both countries engage in dialogue, prioritize common interests, and encourage investment in energy resources and infrastructure, while also working to resolve their differences, the future looks promising for Iran economically, politically, and for Saudi Arabia at all levels. However, the United States and other Western countries may remain skeptical due to their longstanding commitment to a tougher strategy towards Iran in the region. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this development will enhance Saudi Arabia’s regional position and provide significant economic and political benefits for China.
- Limited economic and political progress
Limited progress may be observed in the economic and political spheres following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Deep mistrust may persist due to the lack of progress on issues such as the Iranian nuclear file, as well as the situations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Hardliners in Iran may question any overtures made by Saudi Arabia and undermine the reconciliation process. Simultaneously, concerns about Iran’s regional ambitions and nuclear program from the United States, Western countries, and Israel could lead to the imposition of new economic sanctions, particularly if Iran continues its military cooperation with Russia in the Ukraine conflict. China, whose role as a mediator has been welcomed by some Middle Eastern countries, may face criticism from Western powers that perceive it as a biased actor. Consequently, the region becomes more volatile, and the prospects for long-term stability remain uncertain.
- Escalation and military confrontation
The restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may act as a catalyst for conflict rather than a source of stability. Tensions between the two countries could rapidly escalate with the involvement of regional and international powers that do not desire stability or a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. As the situation worsens, the United States and its allies may become involved, with some supporting Saudi Arabia and others siding with Iran. China’s role in brokering the deal would face heavy criticism, as the conflict would become a major test of its growing global influence. The end result would be a military confrontation that threatens to destabilize the entire region and poses a significant challenge to global security.