China’s Role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations

Anil Trigunayat

After his high-level diplomatic parleys with Arab and Iranian leaders during the past three months Chinese President Xi Jinping got the gift of his diplomatic endeavors on the day, he assumed his 3rd term of presidency.

President Xi  had visited Riyadh (Dec 2022)  to an exceptional red carpet welcome when he conferred with his Saudi counterparts King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as well as held two important Summits with Gulf and Arab leaders.

This was followed by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing (Feb 2023). Apart from many other Chinese strategic initiatives, rapprochement between the two major poles in the West Asian region i.e., Saudi Arabia and Iran is an important achievement and a necessary and sufficient condition for Beijing‘s regional outreach and growing BRI footprints.

Besides, the continued efforts of his top diplomat Wang Yi finally yielded the dividend when Saudi Arabia and Iran signed the trilateral  agreement in Beijing to reestablish diplomatic relations, which were ruptured in 2016 and continued to worsen with both being on the opposing sides in a costly Yemen war.

For the last two years, Iraq and Oman have been working hard to reduce tensions and trying to bring about rapprochement between the two adversaries and several meetings were held to iron out differences and bridge the trust deficit.  However, there is a greater realisation in the region that with the waning US influence and its interest and inability to address the concerns of the Arab constituency against the regional threats including from Iran- backed Houthis, a regional security architecture through a broad modus vivendi among major protagonists is essential and urgently warranted.

At the same time they felt the need to diversify their political risks by engaging with major Asian powers like China and India, which are also the largest markets for the oil rich countries, and are making exceptional efforts to enrich and expand ties with West Asia. 

Pandemic’s crippling impact and stark choices posed by the Russia-Ukraine war in the region and effect of unilateral western sanctions further expedited the intra-regional rapprochement and external outreach. Turkey made up with UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the Qatari blockade was ended by the efforts of MBS. UAE, even though became lynchpin of Abraham Accords with Israel normalised its ties with Tehran. Turkey and Israel also decided to exchange Ambassadors as Beirut and Tel Aviv signed a maritime accord with US intervention.

Qatar made efforts to revive the JCPOA ( Iran nuclear deal) while playing messenger between Tel Aviv and Gaza. Even the FIFA world cup 2022 became a rallying ground for sports unity and diplomatic deftness. Syria -Saudi rapprochement in the wake of devastating earthquakes and efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab League are important indicators of regional desire to find a modus vivendi as they are willing to confront  CAATSA or Caesar’s Act sanctions or for those imposed against Russia. Chinese hand is often there in these demarches.

Of course the continued mutually assured syndrome between near nuclear Iran and already nuclear Israel and their hard core animosity can endanger the stability and fragile security in the region at any time which will have devastating consequences for the region and the world. 

Non-resolution of Palestinian issue is always on the platter to mobilize the Arab street. Hence the Chinese, so very dependent for their energy security on GCC countries and for their strategic BRI labyrinthine calculations, want to maintain at least a semblance of stability by engaging from Tehran to Tel Aviv. In this they might need the still predominant power of the US, remerging Russia and benevolent engagement of India and other Asian powers to be in sync on the issue of regional stability for the larger good.

China is not only exercising its economic heft but its value neutral, non-interventionist policy to emerge as a reliable interlocutor in the ongoing hotspots and conflicts. It also wishes to be part of the West Asian or GCC security architecture while working in the Strait of Hormuz essentially to ensure steady supply of hydrocarbons and security of maritime lanes.

China has also offered to host talks to resolve the Palestinian issue having excellent and an Innovative strategic partnership with Israel and principled support to Palestinian cause. Even for the Russia-Ukraine war it has come up with a 12-point peace plan and is hoping to achieve it by spring or autumn.

Beijing had played a critical role in conclusion of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and supports resumption of talks between the US and Iran on JCPOA. It is quite clear that given the Sino-US strategic competition while China may not be able to be security arbiter in the West Asian region its surely is trying to project itself as a bridge builder.

Indeed the normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tehran and reopening of their missions in two months will add to certain stability. It is a feather in the Chinese Guan hat. But how would Beijing ensure that Saudi concerns on Iranian nuclear ambitions and their quest for religious superiority (Shia-Sunni divide) and contest for Islamic leadership and threats from Iranian backed 3H (Houthis, Hezbollah and Hamas) proxies in the region will be reconciled remains to be seen.

Of course both Hezbollah and Ansarullah  have welcomed the easing of tensions between the two major regional powers. Tel Aviv may not be that happy. US has shown cautious optimism while many regional countries are satisfied with these developments. For the time being, Saudi and Iranian  commitment to  respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other and  non-interference in the internal affairs of another are amenable starting points. One of the most important outcomes may be the ending of Yemen war and plight of the suffering Yemeni people. 

Wind of rapprochement in the crucial West Asian region is a welcome development.

The article was first published in CNBCTV18 as World View: A former diplomat’s take on the role of China playing cupid between Saudi Arabia and Iran on March 13, 2023.

Read more on IMPRI: SC directs EC’s autonomous functionaries towards strengthening Democracy.