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Mariano Caucino

The Saudi-Iranian Deal and China´s Rising Diplomacy

Confirming that change is the only permanent thing in this world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the restoration of their diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies after years of enmity.

The surprise announcement introduced another fundamental factor. Since the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran was reached through the diplomatic efforts of the People’s Republic of China.

In search for hegemony in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran represent, in the current historical circumstances, the ancient Sunni-Shia divide. But what caused this geopolitical upheaval? According to experts, the Ayatollah regime -which has controlled Iran since the 1979 Revolution- could have decided to move forward to reduce the impact resulting from the economic sanctions imposed as a result of its anti-Western policy and fears derived from it of its disturbing nuclear program.

Meanwhile, observers of Saudi reality recommend to focus on the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) ambitions.

In this sense, it is imperative to remember that MBS -who is the Kingdom´s actual ruler since his father advanced age- harbors the intention of turning its country into a great developed power by 2030 while he aspires to reduce US dependence in terms of arms supplies.

At the same time, they recommended keeping in mind a fundamental fact. Given that after having managed to ensure its energy self-sufficiency, the US significantly reduced its dependence on Saudi oil. A development that eventually made China the Kingdom’s main trading partner. The deal between Middle East two major powers was reached after secretive talks in Beijing and implies an important advance in the CCP Politburo´s diplomacy. Such a reality that has been verified with increasing intensity in recent years. Since the attempt to thaw the Gulf constitutes the second Chinese major initiative after its not accepted peace plan for the Russian-Ukraine war.

In the US, meanwhile, the announcement meant a new blow to its dwindling influence in the Middle East. Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the Iranian-Saudi accord was greeted by Washington as a positive development, facts demonstrated the extent to which China aspires to play a role as a major global player. An ambition that necessarily arises concerns to the still World´s most powerful nation.

As one observer stated, while the Biden Administration has inflamed its Gulf allies by apparently wavering for moral reasons -for example by labeling the Saudis as “pariahs” of the international system- and curbing the supply of weapons, MBS has reportedly found an affinity in the Chinese leaders pragmatism.

According to this interpretation, the announcement of the resumption of relations between Riyadh and Tehran should not have surprised the White House, as it was a sort of inevitable corollary of US diplomatic limitations, the relative decline of its leadership and China´s growing ambition to expand its global influence.

In turn, the surprise agreement also implies a challenge for Washington’s main ally in the region: the State of Israel. An event that unfolds in unique circumstances since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -who has returned to power through a controversial parliamentary coalition- has been making a political and diplomatic effort to isolate Tehran. While the normalization of Israel-Saudi Arabia relationship is his long-range goal. Such an ambitious objective that could be fulfilled -eventually- once the transition of power in the Kingdom is finished.

Some of MBS´s expressions in recent years seemed to stimulate him as well. For example, those in The Atlantic, in April 2018, in which the Crowne Prince compared Ayatollah Khamenei with Adolf Hitler and recognized the State of Israel´s right to exist.

But suddenly those statements had to be interpreted in the light of the moment in which they were formulated. At the height of the Trump era and the expansion of a climate of cooperation with Riyadh, the Gulf monarchies and Jerusalem that would eventually lead to the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, probably one of the greatest successes of Trump´s legacy.

One observer noted that after a few years of adventurous and bombastic foreign policy, with the costs of the Yemen devastating war against the Houthi rebels (fueled by Iran) and the futile embargo on Qatar, the Kingdom may be returning to its traditional pragmatism.

While both agree that a substantial test to verify the scope of this understanding will be offered by the situation around Yemen, where through proxies, the Saudis and the Iranians have clashed for years.

But perhaps the most outstanding note of the Saudi-Iranian agreement is the fact that it had Beijing as a “broker”, a role traditionally exercised by Washington.

In this regard, an editorial in the Financial Times warned to what extent China’s renewed geopolitical ambitions were exposed. For years, Beijing had limited its attention in the Middle East to economic and trade issues without dabbling in the realm of politics and security. The events -the true masters of History- seem to confirm the structural tendency of our time characterized by China´s rising power at the world stage. To the point that, on a strategic level, in distant geographies such as Ukraine or the Persian Gulf, Beijing is demonstrating a diplomatic vocation and global projection according with its economic superpower status.

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).