Opinion| The Saudi-Iranian agreement establishes China as an alternative global leader to the US

Marwa El- Shinawy
9 Min Read

Recently, a joint tripartite statement was issued by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China, which reads: “In response to an initiative by President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China to support China to develop good-neighborly relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and based on the agreement between President Xi Jinping and each of the leaderships of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, that the People’s Republic of China host and sponsor the talks between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, desiring to resolve the differences between them through dialogue and diplomacy within the framework of the fraternal ties that unite them, … in the period from 6 to 10 March 2023 in Beijing, discussions took place between the delegations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran … and the three countries announce that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have reached an agreement that includes agreeing to resume diplomatic relations between them and reopen their embassies and representations within a maximum period of two months, their emphasis includes respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.

This joint tripartite statement ends a 7-year diplomatic break between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The main reason behind this boycott is the Iranian demonstrators’ encroachment on Riyadh’s diplomatic missions after Saudi Arabia carried out the death sentence against the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This, of course, led to a significant and direct deterioration in relations. In addition to this, Riyadh has always accused Iran of standing behind the Yemeni group “Ansar Allah”, which Saudi Arabia is fighting in solidarity with an Arab coalition. This is where the group attacked Saudi and Emirati facilities more than once, which cost Saudi Arabia many losses, especially in the oil sector. Thus, the exchange of accusations between the two countries continued for a long time, until the UAE and Kuwait announced their plans last year to return the ambassadors to Iran. Riyadh and Tehran also entered into negotiations to restore relations with an Iraqi mediation, which began with former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi, as well as mediation from the Sultanate of Oman.

Despite all these previous efforts to restore relations to support stability in the region, only China has succeeded in achieving this convergence that decisively supports the security of the region. Certainly, the Chinese mediation in this agreement indicates Beijing’s growing role in establishing itself as a leading diplomatic force in the Middle East, especially since the agreement is an important success for Chinese diplomacy and an indication of a greater role in the region in the future.

Despite the historical role of the United States in the Middle East, China today has a growing economic and diplomatic power there. It is well known that the great allies of the Arab Gulf countries throughout modern history are the Western countries in America and Europe. But despite that, over 4 decades, these countries did nothing to protect the security of the Arab Gulf states from the permanent and continuous Iranian threat. In addition, these countries signed a nuclear agreement with Iran, in which the Gulf states and the concerned Arab countries did not consult. Based on this, the Western political system became a failure and useless in dealing with Iran, and it was necessary to search for others, and this is how China came.

China is Iran’s biggest ally, and its great interests with Saudi Arabia today make it a more credible and effective mediator in controlling Iranian policies, guaranteeing that Iran will abide by the international agreements it signs. More importantly, Chinese diplomacy does not attempt to displace the US security role in the Middle East. This is where John Kirby, White House spokesman, confirmed that Saudi Arabia had kept US officials informed of the talks with Iran, despite Washington’s lack of direct involvement in them.

Obviously, China does not seek to enter into fierce competition with dangerous consequences that affect world peace as the United States does today. Instead, China is trying to create a peaceful international environment there, in which it can do business. Therefore, the negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing had the main objective of consolidating the principles of respect for the sovereignty of states and the commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of any country. It is worth mentioning here that this principle was not mentioned at all in the nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime, which confirms that the United States only cares about its interests.

The Chinese goals of playing such a role in the Middle East are legitimate and known to all. China has a significant interest in the stability of the region, as Beijing receives more than 40% of its crude oil imports from the Middle East. Moreover, the Middle East is a major market for Chinese consumer goods and technology. Most importantly, the Gulf is a key area along the trade routes of the Belt and Road Initiative. This is as the Chinese government seeks to link China with the world through the largest infrastructure project in human history, which is the Silk Road project. In this context, Saudi Arabia, with its strategic geographical location, is considered a window to China on three continents, which is what made Beijing depend on it in establishing the project to revive the “Silk Road”. This is where China is looking for a lively, ambitious, and unconventional partner, capable of adopting unconventional economic ideas, and this is precisely the reason for the enormity of the role that Saudi Arabia will play. The Kingdom is also one of the first countries to express its desire to help China to revive this ancient historical path. Therefore, the stability of the region as a whole is the cornerstone of any commercial project, and this is what China seeks in a serious and balanced way that takes into account the interests of all.

There is no doubt that American influence in the Middle East has been eroding for decades as a result of the unacceptable transgression of the post-9/11 years, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy diplomacy, and then Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, empowering the Taliban in a devastating way for the region. Therefore, this agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed at protecting the security and stability of the region is a real victory for China over the United States and confirms its ability to play an active role in world leadership. This agreement certainly represents the end of US hegemony in the region and confirms that the post-US phase has begun in the Gulf region.

Dr. Marwa El-Shinawy: Assistant Professor at the International American University for Specialized Studies (IAUS)

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