This was inevitable. When the US started to strategically withdraw from the Middle East and shifted its focus towards Southeast Asia and (Eastern) Europe to contain its two rivals (China and Russia), the Middle East was left without a traditional balancer. Without making an orientalist argument and arguing that the Middle East always needed an external ‘balancer’ for its survival, the fact remains that the US exit from the region created a vacuum that forced the relevant states to search for ways to re-balance and seek alternative ways of geopolitical configurations, i.e., alignments and realignments. China became a natural choice for many of these states. First, China was already slowly spreading its economic footprint in the Middle East. Its economic might become an additional reason for the Middle Eastern states – including Iran and Saudi Arabia – to ally with Beijing to reinforce their own development and modernization goals. Secondly, China is perhaps one of the few countries in the world today that has the capacity to talk to all parties, or the principal contenders, in the Middle East (e.g., Iran, Saudi, Israel) and facilitate a durable peace.
The US, on the other hand, does not have this capacity. While it does have deep ties with Israel, Washington’s ties with Saudi have deteriorated ever since Joe Biden became the US President. Therefore, Washington’s ability to shape emerging geopolitics in the Middle East – especially, in the wake of the China-brokered Iran-Saudi deal – is hardly relevant today. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to contend that ‘peace-making’ in the Middle East is no longer a US business, a business that the US skillfully conducted for decades to create divisions and exploit these countries’ resources (e.g., Middle Eastern countries paying for the US forces deployed on their lands to protect them from the same ‘enemies’ the US itself would create) to its material advantage.
Whereas Saudi Arabia is a classic example of Biden’s folly of alienating an ally, Iran’s resistance against the US sanctions is a classic failure of the US deep state’s firm belief in the ability of their self-presumed most feared weapon, i.e., economic and financial sanctions. The end result of these ill-advised policies is the Iran-Saudi détente. This détente is deep.
According to the details of the deal, the Saudis will substantially tone down their criticism of Iran, including via Iran International, a Farsi language news channel reportedly funded by the Saudis targeting Iran. According to Iranian officials, this channel has been playing a role in instigating protests in Iran for some time now. Tehran, on the other hand, agreed to scale down its support for Houthis in Yemen, making sure that cross-border attacks from Yemen on Saudi don’t take place.
What this deal, in effect, means is that the Chinese were able to convince Iranians to potentially end the war that the Saudis, even when they received direct and indirect military support – and weapon sales worth billions of US dollars – from the US and other NATO allies, failed to win for themselves in the past 6 years. That’s quite an impressive development, which could facilitate Saudi-Iran normalization across a range of issues, including the question of Iran’s potential move towards nuclear weapons.
With the US out of the equation, i.e., not unnecessarily penalizing Iran and forcing the latter to retaliate by expanding its nuclear capability – which the US said will be used to target Saudi Arabia and Israel – Iran will not necessarily be seeking to push aggressively for atomic weapons, not least against Saudi.
But China is not acting out of goodwill only. China’s expansion in the Middle East is part of its counter-containment strategy. Ever since Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ and the politics of containment, the Chinese have really been investing in ways to create alternative possibilities. Beijing’s response was its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Today, Beijing’s deep presence in the Middle East – including Saudi and Iran – is a direct result of the counter-containment idea of BRI.
It has vital economic links with both states, and Beijing realizes the necessity of undoing the US-create divisions within the Middle East to materialize its material objectives i.e., trade from and to China and Europe intersecting all the countries located in between.
Therefore, unlike how some western geopolitical pundits have argued, the Iran-Saudi deal is not simply an outcome of the “isolation” that Iran has been facing. If this was true, what will explain Saudi Arabia’s decision to be a part of this deal? If Iran was really “isolated”, this was not simply the result of Saudi policies, but an outcome of a concerted application of a strategy of (economic) application by the US and its allies. But Iran was not “isolated” as western policy makers tend to believe. Yes, it was under immense economic pressure, but it was still able to maintain vital links with the world’s major powers (Russia and China) and regional states, including the UAE, which happened in almost a year ago.
Therefore, instead of Iran being an “isolated” state begging to be ‘un-isolated’, what is happening in the Middle East must necessarily be understood in terms of a major geopolitical realignment underpinned by a deep convergence of interests amongst a range of regional states and a global power striving to build a new, alternative world order. This is also evident from an emerging agreement between Riyadh and Beijing as well to conduct business in local currencies rather than USD.
Indeed, the Middle East is turning into a place that might just give birth to an alternative world order, shattering, even according to CNN, the [unfounded] assumption of the US supremacy in the Middle East.
While CNN’s analysis is limited to the Middle East only, China’s success in brokering a deal between two hard-core rivals could have ramifications much beyond the Middle East. It could use its deep presence in Africa to transform the landscape of conflict in that continent as well; it could expand BRICS and SCO by including both Iran and Saudi; and it could start a major diplomatic effort in Southeast Asia to resolve any points of contention in South and East China Seas. To all of these, China, via its successful brokerage of the Saudi-Iran deal, has demonstrated its importance as a state willing to resolve thorny issues via diplomacy.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“