Expert: Saudi-Iran Thaw Shows China’s ‘Coming of Age’

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Journal contributor foresaw Beijing’s participation in regional diplomacy a year before the deal. 

The normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, demonstrates “Beijing’s increasing confidence in its role as a major global actor,” a scholar who predicted this diplomatic maneuver tells Middle East Policy in an exclusive interview. 

“Through this increased regional diplomacy and assertiveness to bring together the warring Riyadh and Tehran—Washington’s ally and foe, respectively—Beijing has effectively announced and consolidated its claims of a global power role,” said Mohmad Waseem Malla, a research scholar at the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. 

Malla foresaw this development a year before the March deal was announced, writing in a Spring 2022 Middle East Policy article that it was only “a matter of time before the results of the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia force Beijing to turn toward political engagement.” 

Tehran and Riyadh had broken ties in 2016, when Iran executed a prominent Shia cleric. Since then, the two states have been engaged in proxy wars against each other, most notably in Yemen. China’s good relations with both sides enabled its role as a mediator in negotiations. 

Amid a decade of speculation about the United States’ perceived retrenchment from the Middle East, the move appeared to signal a change in great-power competition in the region. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been in direct competition for dominance. It is inarguable, Malla told Middle East Policy in an email interview, that “the mutually exclusive policies of Riyadh and Tehran have been the primary source and driver of instability in the region.” 

The deal had immediate effects, Malla observed, as the Saudis “started engaging with Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen, bringing a thaw in their fight, which has been ongoing since 2015.” The foes have also begun to discuss resuming travel, reopening embassies and consulates, and cooperating on commercial enterprises. 

Despite these positive developments, Malla cautioned that the deal is still “a first step toward Saudi-Iranian reconciliation….Building trust and cooperation between [them] will take time.” 

China has extensive histories with the two Middle Eastern states, and it plans increased involvement. The bilateral relationships are mostly built on economic cooperation: Beijing committed over $5 billion in Belt and Road Initiative investments to Saudi Arabia in 2022 alone, while also pumping billions into multiple Iranian oilfield developments since 2000. 

Beijing has long seen economic development as key to promoting security, Malla noted. In seeking to normalize relations between the Middle East’s two largest states, China is looking to secure its investments. “The region has become all the more important for Beijing, whose stability is necessary for sustaining its pandemic-hit but burgeoning economy,” the scholar said. 

A lack of historical baggage in the region—in stark contrast to the United States—has aided China in its endeavors. Involvement in the normalization deal can be seen as the East Asian power’s first step into the region’s political and policy sphere, where “it has previously hesitated to involve itself,” Malla asserted. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Malla’s Middle East Policy article: 

  • Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in competition for dominance in the Middle East for decades, adversaries because of “diametrically opposite political systems and ideological orientations” and regional great-power competition. 

  • China-Iran relations date back centuries, as the two have long been connected via trade routes like the ancient Silk Road. Today, economic engagement remains central to their relationship.  

    • Non-energy trade volume has increased from less than $2 billion in the 1980s to $45 billion by 2011. 

    • China imported $19 billion worth of crude oil and other petrochemical products from Iran in 2013. 

    • China has also supplied Iran with military equipment and technology, including nuclear development, since the 1979 revolution and the subsequent arms embargo imposed by Western states. 

  • China-Saudi Arabia relations are far younger, with Saudi only recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1990. The relationship is built primarily on energy cooperation: 

    • Riyadh has been the PRC’s largest supplier of crude oil since 2002, fulfilling about 20 percent of the state’s requirements. 

    • By 2013, the Kingdom was supplying Beijing with 1.3 million barrels per day and as of 2018, it is also Beijing’s ninth-largest source of imported goods and services. 

  • China sees Saudi Arabia as an important ally as it seeks to expand its influence in the Gulf and Africa and Iran as a necessary partner in its desire to build economic infrastructure across central Asia. 

    • Normal relations between the two states are vital for China’s planned growth. 

  • The PRC’s lack of historical baggage in the region has been key in developing working relationships with the two rivals. 

    • This increased engagement, however, means it will be difficult for Beijing to remain on the fringes of political developments, where it has stayed so far. 

You can read Mohmad Waseem Malla’s article, “China’s Approach to the Saudi-Iran Rivalry,” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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