Will Saudi-Iran deal endure under China’s sway?

Apparently, after China’s entry, the process of normalization between the two rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has taken a new turn. The newly signed agreement between Riyadh and Tehran is anticipated to bring a significant shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East. The deal brokered by China has brought Tehran back into mainstream regional politics that has long been cornered due to heavy sanctions. Saudi Arabia is also quite hopeful that the deal could prevent further attacks against its interests in the region.

Since no details about the recent deal have surfaced in the media, the general opinions are overwhelmingly split over the importance of the said deal. Some argue the development is significant and has far-reaching implications for the region. This is for the first time China has replaced the US in brokering an agreement in this region. Previously from the Camp David Agreement (1978), to Abraham Accords (2020), the US was the sole figure in brokering the deals. But for others, this particular development is not going to make a big difference considering the deep-rooted conflicts in the region and the complex geopolitics of the Middle East and West Asia. However, the most important is to understand the sustainability factor under Chinese supervision as the track record of mediation in the region by the US and European countries has been disappointing. So, whether China can ensure the sustainability of the Saudi-Iran deal is a million-dollar question.

Before seeking an answer to the particular question raised above, there is a need to understand that Beijing was neither a negotiator nor a guarantor. Rather, it facilitated the dialogue between the two parties to conclude an agreement that was hanging since 2016. Secondly, the deal should not be viewed as a battle where the US failed and China has emerged as the winner. Instead, the success was born out of three factors; growing pressure on 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 couple of years were also factored in 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 not surprising. For its part, China has always been concerned with Saudi-Iran tensions since both countries are the largest trade partner of Beijing and peace between the two arch rivals can only serve Beijing’s core economic interests in the region. However, Beijing’s role, at this juncture is more or less the same as Islamabad had played out back in 1971 in the US-China rapprochement which was limited at facilitating the talks between two countries and thus barely impact transforming their relationship 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 the 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 a non-partisan friend too. 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 that are divided into several groups, and some of them are working independently to Riyadh and Tehran’s dictations. Given that, the settlement is not a piece of cake. Both Riyadh and Tehran have to work in tandem for concluding 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 in addressing 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 be a ‘low-risk’ engagement for China as argued by Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington.

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 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 for having friendly relations even if the deal reaches an unexpected end.

Since the normalization is lengthy as well as 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 smooth sailing of the normalization process. 

Syed Imran Sardar
Syed Imran Sardar
Syed Imran Sardar is an author and senior research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. He can be reached at maan_shah[at]hotmail.com, Twitter- @maan_sardar