From Rivalry to Reconciliation: the Changing Dynamics of Middle Eastern Geopolitics
On 10 March 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran buried the hatchet and re-established diplomatic relationships, shocking the world. The secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Advisor met in Beijing to officially reopen their embassies to each other.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in a long standing cold war for decades, fuelled by geopolitical rivalry, religious differences, proxy conflicts and, arguably, United States involvement. The US has been especially involved through its alliance with Saudi Arabia and its historical interventions in the region by providing military support, including arms sales and logistical assistance.
However, the rivalry between these two nations represents a much larger division of world powers. While Iran has made allies of China and Russia in light of their toughest economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia has allied with the US. In addition to being their second largest trading partner, Saudi Arabia shared a similarity with the US in not being able to tolerate Iran. This only further grounded the rivalry between the two nations and fuelled political conflict.
Their rivalry is often manifested through support for opposing factions which contribute to prolonged conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. Such conflicts have claimed the lives of many innocent civilians, fuelling instability across the Middle East.
There have been various efforts in the past to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Iran’s differences. In 1997, Kuwait failed to achieve a lasting reconciliation between the two nations. The Qatar mediation of four years also failed after several diplomatic efforts. Oman and Pakistan have also attempted and failed to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran
China establishing middle ground
How was China successful in mediating diplomatic relations between the two rivals?
China’s successful role as mediator was made public after the announcement of the joint trilateral statement by Saudi Arabia, Iran and China affirming their “agreement to resume diplomatic relations.”
According to a recent Policy Analysis by Grant Rumley, China has been active in Middle Eastern diplomacy over recent years with an increased security presence. During President Xi Jinping’s trip to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, he aimed to strengthen the relationship between the two nations by "having Chinese companies sign at least 34 agreements.”
This act of “good faith” demonstrated China’s intention to partner with Saudi Arabia, strengthening diplomatic relations between them. China has also been Iran’s biggest trading partner since 2002, showing their loyalty to Iran by condemning the recent US-led sanctions on the country's oil exports.
For China, the benefits of re-establishing diplomacy between two nations that have some of the world’s largest oil reserves are obvious. According to senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC, Sina Toossi, improving ties and stability across the Gulf region provides China with a vital source of energy, imported from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Yemen conflict between the state government and Houthi movement has been a pressing concern impeding the restoration of stability across the region.
The Houthi movement is a rebel group based in Yemen. It originated in the early 1990s with the objective to gain political control over Yemen. Iran's support for the Houthi movement is well-documented, enabling them to sustain their insurgency against the Yemeni government. However, Iran denies direct military involvement in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been directly involved in the conflict with the Houthi movement in Yemen. In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention to support the Yemeni government against the Houthi movement. The Saudi involvement is driven by concerns over Iran's alleged support for the Houthis and its perceived threat to their security interests in the region.
In 2019, the Houthis led an attack on Saudi oil facilities which halted oil production. This attack drastically impacted global oil prices with the biggest price spike in over a decade. While Iran has been known for backing the anti-imperialist Houthi movement against the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, they denied involvement.
For China, this raised concerns about energy security and the stability of their oil supply, so it’s no surprise that energy security and economic concerns have become big factors for China in the push for diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China is also strengthening its alliance with the country that has the second-largest amount of oil reserves in the world: Saudi Arabia. To understand the importance of this, we must take a look into the infamous political relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US.
This relationship has historically been characterised as a strategic partnership, primarily based on mutual economic and security interests. When former US president Donald Trump clearly stated that the US ‘would not get involved in a war with or for the Middle East’, Saudi Arabia couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed, according to Toossi. If the US was unable to provide unconditional support to Saudi Arabia against Iran, then it was time to realise that the two rivals will have to “come to terms and co-exist”.
The lack of support from the US and its entanglement in the conflict presented itself as the perfect opportunity for China. It was a “low risk high reward” opportunity for China to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Due to the perfect timing and carefully planned mediations, China was successful: a truly pivotal and almost impossible moment in global politics.
What lies ahead?
With Iran and Saudi Arabia finally reconciling many are hoping to see an end to sectarian conflicts across the Middle East and, as a result, a deterioration of US dominance. For a long time now, the world has witnessed US involvement in the Middle East that has had a major hand in civil and economic instability and prolonged conflict. The impacts of this have led to a rise of extremism, sectarian tensions, anti-US sentiment and destabilisation.
The US has maintained global dominance through economic power, military superiority and diplomatic alliances. Maintaining this is a complex and multifaceted endeavour. The US faces challenges from emerging powers, shifts in geopolitics, and changing dynamics in the international order, which may influence its future global dominance.
Toossi explains that “this is a broader sign of the changing global order and how the period of America being the unchallenged global superpower – especially after the Cold War – is ending.”
With the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships being very recent, we may not see a sudden change to end tensions in the Middle East. However, it certainly is a positive starting point to reduce tensions that have come at the expense of Middle Easterners.
Political analyst Diako Hosseini emphasises that “ending the eight-year war in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides, could be the most important eventual outcome of the agreement, but it would be a difficult goal to achieve.”
The beginning of diplomatic relations would also create new opportunities of trade and economic growth. Especially with revisiting prior diplomatic agreements reached by Iran and Saudi Arabia before ties were severed. According to Toossi, “by mentioning these agreements, it seems like both sides are trying to recapture the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”
So, here we are, witnessing the remarkable resurgence of Iran and Saudi Arabia's diplomatic relations with the help of China. Will this be a fleeting moment of unity or the start of a lasting bond? Regardless, it's a reminder that in the unpredictable world of geopolitics, even the most entrenched rivalries can be rewritten.