By Chris Alden, Felix Brender and Lukas Fiala
Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s decision to restore diplomatic relations has taken many observers by surprise. Even more so, the fact that Beijing was presented as the mediator bringing to an end the seven-year hiatus between Riyadh and Tehran raised eyebrows across Western capitals as it further supported the image of China’s growing diplomatic role across the Middle East. With some commentators asserting the U.S. could never have brokered said deal, the question remains as to how significant China’s diplomatic role has actually been.
The Saudi-Iran deal followed a meeting in Beijing last Friday aimed at easing tensions within the wider region. As part of the agreement, the two countries agreed to reopen their embassies within two months as well as initiate security cooperation arrangements. This represents a significant turnaround after Tehran and Riyadh ended diplomatic ties in 2016, following Iranian protestors storming the Saudi mission after the execution of a Shia cleric. Incidents such as the attack on a Saudi oil facility for which Riyadh held Tehran responsible only worsened bilateral tensions in the context of the war in Yemen, where both Saudi Arabia and Iran have supported the opposing sides.
Given such hardened fronts, it’s easy to see why the rapprochement has widely been interpreted as a big diplomatic win for China. On the one hand, the fact that the agreement was signed during a visit to Beijing demonstrates the tangible outcomes of Chinese crisis diplomacy. From China’s controversial role in Sudan and involvement in the six-party talks over North Korea in the early 2000s, Beijing’s crisis diplomacy has become increasingly proactive, reflecting a more nuanced interpretation of the well-known non-interference policy over the last decade. On the other, the deal signals China’s inroads into the wider MENA region, a subject of more and more debate among China watchers. While most experts agree that China does not wish to replace the US and its security commitments to the region, the optics of the agreement surely attest to Beijing’s growing diplomatic clout.
The deal also comes at a convenient time for Beijing. As Chinese language coverage of the event demonstrates, China is keen to highlight Xi Jinping’s personal initiative in bringing about the deal. The framing of Xi as a diplomatic problem solver is surely a good opportunity to drown out some of the more negative news coverage in the West after Xi directly criticized the US for containing China’s development at a speech he gave at the two sessions last week. The latter was widely interpreted as a rhetorical escalation as such direct references are unusual in Xi’s diplomatic language, further contributing to the alienation between Beijing and Washington. The deal also distracts from China’s controversial relationship with Moscow in the context of the war in Ukraine and seemingly lends credibility to China’s recently publicized Global Security Initiative, Xi’s vision for global security governance that emphasizes China’s adherence to peaceful development and cooperation.
Yet, probing beyond China’s diplomatic framing, it’s important to realize that other important factors contributed to securing the deal. The first is the role of Iraq and specifically former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has been an important figure in earlier stages of the process. Direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran started in Bagdad in April 2021 and preceded China’s involvement. Xi is likely to have taken on the role of a messenger between Riyadh and Tehran after his meeting with King Salman in Saudi Arabia last December. Having signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia at said meeting and given China’s long-term relationship with Iran, Beijing benefits from easing tensions between the two regional rivals.
And so do Riyadh and Tehran when it comes to consolidating their respective relationships with China. With Saudi Arabia showing interest in joining the BRICS and Iran recently completing accession procedures to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) –Russia and China-led security arrangement in Central Asia – working with China to finalize the deal supports Riyadh’s goal to pluralize diplomatic alignments beyond the West and Tehran’s conviction to counterbalance the US while easing diplomatic isolation enforced by sanctions regimes.
Indeed, the fact of involvement enables China, irrespective of the degree of its actual input into the process, to continue to demonstrate a public commitment to peace mediation in the region. China has generally preferred to set the table rather than the agenda in such situations, bringing parties to the negotiation table but leaving it to regional intermediaries to do the heavy lifting.
This could be observed in the Horn of Africa over the last year, where China’s regional envoy, Xue Bing, largely avoided controversial topics head-on and left it to the African Union and regional actors to negotiate a peace deal in the conflict between Addis Ababa and the northern Tigray region. It seems, however, that Beijing is more willing to make a claim to fame when negotiations involve two sovereign governments rather than including non-state groups as was the case in Ethiopia.
While Beijing’s involvement is thus not the only factor facilitating the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, China’s evolving crisis diplomacy will be an important development to watch as we are trying to improve our understanding of Beijing’s future relationship with the Middle East and Africa.