Iranian-Saudi detente and “Asianization” of the Persian Gulf: China fills the gap


After an intense round of secret negotiations between Iranian and Saudi representatives, facilitated by Chinese mediation, Tehran and Riyadh announced in mid-March that they would resume diplomatic relations after seven years of regional antagonism. As a result of the reconciliation agreement, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud officially invited President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh. Iran’s Vice President, Mohammad Mokhber, revealed that Raisi has accepted the invitation, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran will make a similar invitation and send it to the Saudi king. It is not clear whether the Saudi-Iranian détente will last, but at least for now, China’s role in resolving this diplomatic impasse between two major regional powers seems to indicate the beginning of a multifaceted process of de-Westernization in the region.

In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Riyadh to participate in the first China-Arab States Summit, and in February 2023, President Raisi visited Beijing at the official invitation of his Chinese counterpart. These high-level diplomatic meetings reflect China’s political approach in the Persian Gulf: building partnerships with all major regional powers and filling the political vacuum left by the West.

De-Westernization in the Persian Gulf

The world is becoming less Western as the increase in geopolitical competition between great powers, an increase in the number of combined crises around the world, and the involvement of Western powers in various conflicts outside of Europe have returned to the plurality. In Xi’s words, “The world today has been going through profound changes for a century.” A central feature of this post-Western world order is a fluid and situational web of strategic relations between global and regional powers based primarily on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. China, unlike the United States, has established good relations with all the countries of the Middle East. Representing the flexibility of its non-aligned diplomacy, Beijing has signed several comprehensive bilateral strategic partnerships on both sides of the Persian Gulf.

The agreement made by China between Riyadh and Tehran shows the growing willingness of regional actors in recent years to take advantage of the emergence of alternative global powers to the detriment of the US and the West in general. The US has been the main external actor in the Middle East for many years, but its recent reluctance to participate in regional crises has further encouraged local governments to engage with other available external powers, particularly in Asia. Symbolic of the Gulf’s shift towards a more Asia-focused policy, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have significantly increased their trade with the Asia-Pacific region – this trade is expected to increase by around 60%. , to $578 billion, by 2030. In addition, Riyadh is also reportedly considering accepting the Chinese yuan instead of the US dollar for oil sales to China, which has sparked a harsh response from the US.

The perception among Arab leaders that Washington stopped prioritizing the Middle East – especially after the Obama administration announced its “Pivot to Asia” strategy – had consequences in the area of ​​defense and security. In other words, Arab countries have taken steps to reduce their reliance on the US as a security provider by developing their domestic defense sectors. And they turned to China again and again to help achieve those objectives. Saudi Arabia, for example, has begun to manufacture its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, and the United Arab Emirates has allowed Beijing to develop a military facility at an Emirati port, although construction has stopped after US officials warned that give Abu Dhabi about the consequences of China’s military presence in the region.

Iran welcomes “Asianization” in the Persian Gulf

For Iran, greater “Asianization” in the Persian Gulf is a boon. It is clear to Iran’s leaders, and especially to conservative decision makers, that the expansion of China’s political and economic role in the region would harm the United States. Therefore, contrary to the expectations of earlier analysts, Tehran supports the expansion of ties between GCC member states and China as well as Beijing’s growing political influence in the region. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and uncertainty over whether the Biden administration will ever try to return to it led Tehran to conclude that the US and its allies were in the West. unwilling to recognize or respect Iran’s regional interests and concerns. In contrast, Tehran believes that Beijing acknowledges Iran’s status as a regional power, as demonstrated by China’s support for Iran becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) later this year. The SCO led by China is a symbol of Asianization and the recent decision of Saudi Arabia to join this organization as a dialogue partner would confirm the Asianization trend of the region.

China’s involvement in the Persian Gulf

Beijing’s diplomatic intervention between Tehran and Riyadh is in line with China’s desire to take an active role in international politics and to reshape the world order based on a declared vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security as part of a grand strategy to renew the China. after 2012. Therefore, coming in to host the signing of the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic rapprochement, China saw an opportunity to establish its role as a proactive and responsible global actor in conflict resolution through diplomatic means. That mediating role notably came on the heels of China’s 12-point position paper, released in February, to settle the Russia-Ukraine war. Later, Xi visited President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the topic of the conflict came up, and he reportedly plans to hold talks soon with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Together, these initiatives are designed to demonstrate China’s evolving role as a global peacemaker that would stand in contrast to the US’ reputation as the world’s policeman.

On February 21, 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) concept paper, which declares that Beijing will promote the political resolution of regional conflicts by encouraging the countries involved in their disputes to solution through dialogue and communication. GSI also reiterated that China is adhering to its five-point proposal to promote peace and security in the Middle East. In this regard, the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia shows a practical acceptance of the GSI and reaffirms the security discourse that China aims to consolidate through that initiative.

China’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, such as energy security, are more concentrated in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, China has signed three comprehensive strategic partnerships and four strategic partnerships with the Persian Gulf states. The protection of China’s extensive interests in the Persian Gulf depends on reducing tensions in the region and ensuring maximum stability and security. Accordingly, Beijing has floated the idea of ​​hosting a high-level summit between Iran and the GCC members in 2023. Such an initiative would further consolidate China’s role as a peacemaker in the region and could start a new security framework in the Middle. East based on principles enshrined in China’s GSI, creating a clear dividing line with long-term US narratives and attitudes towards security in the region. Giving credence to those expectations, after the settlement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, met with the president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. During the visit, the two sides discussed in particular opportunities to strengthen bilateral relations and improve regional security.

Although the US administration welcomed the arrangement between Riyadh and Tehran with caution, Washington is concerned about Beijing’s role in this diplomatic development in the Middle East. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the central world power involved in the Persian Gulf. And after the end of the Cold War, the United States was instrumental in helping to bring about every major diplomatic deal in the region. The deal brokered by China and Beijing’s comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with both sides of the Persian Gulf represent the first possible serious alternatives to the American-led regional order based on alliances and a strong US military presence in the region.

The de-westernization of the Middle East is the result of repeated failures of the US-led West to prioritize diplomacy, be impartial, and demonstrate flexibility in dealing with regional conflicts. Indeed, in the post-Cold War era, the West has often attempted to resolve regional disputes through coercive means, whether military intervention, economic sanctions, and/or political pressure. In contrast, China wants to present itself as the antithesis of the US and its Western allies. Beijing has cast itself as an outside power capable of managing conflicts through mediation and diplomacy, with a greater focus on business, stability, and shared interests, not seeking regional sovereignty, and protecting its core interests in the region. guaranteed at the same time, including energy. security, investment and trade.

It remains to be seen how far China’s involvement in the Middle East will go and what implications it will have for the region’s security architecture. However, the power vacuums that result from de-Westernization lead to the Asianization of the Persian Gulf. China is trying to fill the gap with strategic precision. As the two main regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia are now assisting China in that effort and, in turn, helping to reshape the regional order.

Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.

Alam Saleh is a lecturer in Iranian studies at the Australian National University’s Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies.

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

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