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The China-Mediterranean Observer: Iranian, Saudi Commentators Reflect on What’s Next for China’s Role in the Region

File image of Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) walking alongside Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (C) during a meeting in Beijing on April 6, 2023. HO STR / SAUDI PRESS AGENCY / AFP

In April, news outlets throughout the wider Mediterranean region continued to discuss the “Beijing Agreement”, the recent China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish official diplomatic relations. Interest in the agreement remained high as the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers reconvened in Beijing on April 6 to discuss its implementation. However, there was a notable shift among commentators from focusing on the factors and motivations behind the deal to analyzing its potential implications for the region.

As can be expected, analysts interpreted the Beijing Agreement based on their respective country’s interests and personal political orientations. For instance, pro-government Iranian commentators viewed the deal as vindicating their defense of Tehran’s partnership with Beijing (under scrutiny due to its promised economic benefits not materializing) as it has helped Iran overcome its regional diplomatic isolation and resolve long-standing conflicts across the Middle East. The conservative newspaper Resalat even hailed the China-mediated agreement as heralding “the deterioration of U.S. world hegemony and the paradigm shift from a unipolar to a multipolar order.”

The View From Tehran

While discussions on the foundations of a multipolar world order may pique the interest of international relations adepts, the dire economic problems currently faced by Iran are undoubtedly a far more pressing concern for the majority of Iranians. This might explain why much of the Persian-language press has sought to analyze the potential tangible benefits the Beijing Agreement could offer to Iran’s battered and sanction-stricken economy.

In an article for the economic daily Donya-e-Eqtesad, professor Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, delves into how the Beijing Agreement could present an economic opportunity for Tehran. Barzegar argues that “China when it comes to deciding where to direct its efforts, does not prefer countries with small economies under international sanctions.”

However, he suggests that Beijing recently switched to a “new model” in which geopolitical priorities are just as important as economic interests. As evidence, he points to China’s approach to the war in Ukraine, as despite Russia being “a decaying and sanctioned power that has nothing to add to China”, Beijing still supports Moscow due to geopolitical concerns. Given Iran’s influence on the Middle East’s stability and its opposition to Western influence, Barzegar recommends that Iranian policymakers pursue an active foreign policy aligned with Beijing’s worldview that seizes the opportunities created by great power competition. This will persuade China to make extensive investments in Iran, transfer technology to the country, and ultimately help solidify Tehran’s position as a regional power.

Nevertheless, Heshmatullah Falahat Pisheh, a conservative political activist and the former head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission argues that Iranian policymakers’ “polarized and regionalist mentality” has led to Iran obtaining nothing “except for a few internal political stances” from the Beijing Agreement. In an interview with the reformist newspaper Sharq, Falahat Pisheh asserts that Saudi Arabia and China, on the other hand, have achieved concrete benefits from the agreement. Riyadh has seen an increase in the value of Aramco shares, while Beijing has created a secure environment for cooperation with Arab states in energy, trade, and investment.

Thus, while acknowledging the agreement as a positive step, Falahat Pisheh suggests that the de-escalation policy should extend to more sensitive and crucial areas, such as the nuclear issue and the JCPOA.

The “All-Asian Agreement”

This perspective is criticized by Farshid Bagherian, an international affairs expert and vocal opponent of the JCPOA, who was also interviewed for the same Sharq article. Bagherian believes that “the restoration of Iran-Saudi relations and the improvement of ties in the region is far greater than any restoration of the JCPOA” as “the sanctions that were supposed to be removed with the revival of the JCPOA have now been applied against institutions, bodies, officials, and personalities under the pretext of the war in Ukraine and also some internal developments in the past seven months [i.e. the Mahsa Amini protests]”. However, Bagherian disagrees with the depiction of the Beijing Agreement as an “all-Asian agreement”, emphasizing that “Beijing’s tripartite agreement would have not been possible without a green light from the U.S. to China and Saudi Arabia”.

Iranian enthusiasm over the Beijing Agreement’s possible material benefits was also dampened by cold hard economic data. Another article by Donya-e-Eqtesad presented figures revealing a dramatic decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) in Iran, including from China, in recent years. This trend is particularly striking when compared to the increased Chinese FDI inflows observed in Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbors in recent years (except for Türkiye, where local analysts have also lamented lacking Chinese investment), as can be seen over at ChinaMed Data. After assessing the Iranian economy’s many internal and external challenges, the article concludes by referencing the Beijing Agreement. While arguing that the deal can create a more favorable environment for foreign investors, the piece cautions that “even with the removal of sanctions and the improvement of relations with neighbors, as long as there is a possibility of a return to unfavorable conditions, no wise investor will be willing to accept risk of investing [in Iran].”

Moreover, Hamidreza Shokuhi, the editor-in-chief of Etemad, posits that energy exports do not provide Iran with an alternative source of capital. While Tehran’s strategy of offering greater oil discounts than Russia has boosted its oil exports to China amid sanctions, it has not proportionately increased the country’s income.

Saudis Weigh U.S. vs. Chinese Engagement

On the opposite shore of the Gulf, the Arabic-language media landscape has also been abuzz with discussions on the Beijing Agreement’s implications. While some analyses have emphasized the economic or energy perspective, Arabic news media have shown a greater interest in examining whether the deal could augur increased Chinese involvement in Middle Eastern diplomacy and security. There is also keen interest in evaluating if Beijing’s approach to regional issues is superior to that of Washington and whether it could bring an end to American hegemony in the Middle East.

“The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the supposed military calm in the Gulf region under Chinese guarantee will force Washington’s retirement from its security role [in the region], thus making the U.S. lose its political, economic and security influence.”

lebanese author & journalist Jad Fayyad

A notable example is an article by Emirati political analyst Dr. Salem Al Ketbi for Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh. Ketbi posits that “China is confidently advancing, relying on… a widespread acceptance of its role in contrast to the rapid decline of America’s influence caused by the series of repeated and continuous errors that its administrations have committed since supporting the chaos and turmoil which erupted in Arab countries in 2011”. The piece concludes with reflections on China-US tensions over Taiwan, in which “China’s rise to the top of the global order” is treated as almost an inevitability. It is worth noting that Al Ketbi’s perspective was published in Al-Riyadh, which is purportedly under the control of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, a country that is supposedly a strong American partner in the region.

This more “independent” Saudi foreign policy has given rise to other articles such as a recent piece in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar provocatively titled “A new Saudi slap to Washington… the American era in the Middle East ends?”

According to the author, journalist Jad Fayyad, the strengthening of ties with China has played a significant role in the historic deterioration of Saudi-American relations. Moreover, “the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the supposed military calm in the Gulf region under Chinese guarantee will force Washington’s retirement from its security role [in the region], thus making the US lose its political, economic and security influence.” While Fayyad points to U.S. President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful state visit to Riyadh, lack of support against the Houthis in Yemen, and disagreements over oil production after sanctions on Russia as factors behind the Kingdom’s China-friendly diplomacy, an article in the Lebanese newspaper al-Liwa instead considers US support for Israel as being the deciding factor favoring the Sino-Arab rapprochement.

What’s Next for Chinese Mediation in the Middle East?

Despite there being a generally sympathetic view of China’s diplomatic approach and the values promoted by its foreign policy in Arabic-language commentaries, there are analysts who caution Arab governments not to be naive in their dealings with Beijing. Salah al-Ghul, writing in the Emirati newspaper Al Khaleej, warns that “ the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, Türkiye’s opening to the Arab world and the growing Chinese role in the Arab and Middle Eastern policies will not bear the desired fruit nor realize their wished-for benefits unless Arabs learn the art and science of coordinating their positions.” He thus proposes the establishment of blocs between influential Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq, to “revive the Arab system, meaning a return to Arab solidarity and the coordination of positions of Arab countries towards the initiatives of regional and international actors”.

One prominent question that commentators from across the Arab world have been grappling with is whether the Chinese government, on the heels of the apparent success of the Beijing Agreement, could play a mediating role in other conflicts. The particular interest of Arabic-language media in this issue may stem from the multitude of longstanding conflicts that afflict the Arab world, ranging from the civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria to Israel’s forceful occupation of Palestine. This discussion gained momentum following Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (31 March) and French President Emmanuel Macron’s (5-8 April) state visits to China, which had the aim of persuading Chinese President Xi Jinping to use his leverage to “bring Russia to its senses.” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s comments on April 17, expressing Beijing’s interest in facilitating peace talks between Israel and Palestine, further fueled this debate.

On this issue, the Moroccan writer Hussein Majdoubi penned an article titled “Can Beijing solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?” for the pan-Arab and pro-Palestine newspaper Al-Quds-Al-Arabi. For Majdoubi, “China enjoys advantages that could facilitate its role as a mediator in the future, as it recognizes the Palestinian state, does not consider resistance movements like Hamas as terroristic, recognizes Israel as a state, and maintains firm stances on international issues, contrary to the US, whose position can change from president to president.” Furthermore, given the changing dynamics in the Middle East, including the growing strength of regional powers and their gradual acceptance of the existence of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, Majdoudi asserts that Tel Aviv may be compelled to accept a Chinese/Russian settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, after decades of deferring the Palestinian question, the U.S. must strive to find its own solution as “if [it] withdraws, leaving the conflict unsettled and giving China the opportunity to resolve it, [Washington] would lose its historical significance and the ethical discourse it has championed for decades, leading to the moral decline of the West.”

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Dr. Ahmed Kandil, a Senior Fellow at the Cairo-based al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, explains to the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm that, in addition to economic interests, “Beijing’s success mediating Saudi-Iranian tensions has encouraged it to multiply its efforts regarding the Russo-Ukrainian front.” Kandil further argues that Xi Jinping, facing U.S. containment efforts and China’s demonization in Western media, “realized that to counter Washington and the West would require him to play a bigger diplomatic role in the world, commensurate with China’s economic and military power”.

In the same article, however, former Egyptian ambassador to China Aly El-Hefn reminds readers that China’s diplomatic activities are nothing new, as Beijing has in the past already presented initiatives regarding the Palestinian issue and the Syrian crisis and sent envoys to war-torn areas like the Horn of Africa. El-Hefn also expresses concern over the U.S.’ current refusal to recognize China’s growing diplomatic centrality, emphasizing “the importance of coordination between the two countries on numerous international issues, as it would contribute to the resolution of global challenges.”

New Skepticism of China in the Middle East

Nevertheless, it is important to note that not all commentators across the Arab world believe that China will emerge as a powerful mediator in the region. For example, the Iraqi newspaper al-Sabaah published a frank piece that labels the Beijing Agreement as “another Chinese propaganda exercise.” According to the article, “the global perception of China as a more active global political player may be exaggerated… China has always been skilled in the art of declaring victory to resolve sensitive issues, providing an excuse for world powers to withdraw from confrontation… If the struggling and rich Middle Eastern economies allow China to repeat its debt traps in the region, poor infrastructure, inequality, and the resulting increase in repression from authoritarian regimes will increase instability.” Moreover, “Iran’s increasing dissatisfaction with Beijing is becoming more evident, and it is not yet clear to what extent Chinese investments can calm these obstacles… [and] to what extent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can convince China to pressure Tehran” especially since “no one knows what tactics China used to reach this diplomatic coup in a few short months.”

Negative perspectives of the Beijing Agreement are also present in the Israeli press, likely due to Tel Aviv and its American ally being widely viewed as the biggest losers of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The main concern expressed by Israeli analysts such as Assaf Orion, the director of the Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the IDF’s Strategic Division, and geopolitics analyst Dr. Anat Hochberg Marom regards how the agreement has allowed Iran to escape diplomatic isolation and consolidate its position across the region to the detriment of Israel’s security. However, when it comes to China-US competition, Orion is not as concerned as “the US is not leaving the Middle East and is still the region’s strongest power” and “[China] does not aspire to replace the US as the region’s security guarantor and would be content to continue relying on [Washington to ensure] security for shipping and energy routes.”

The View From Southern Europe

Returning to China’s alleged expanding role as a mediator, there were also commentaries on this topic in the Southern European press, especially following Macron’s state visit to China. A notable example is a Le Figaro article by Professor Gilles Kepel, director of the Middle East-Mediterranean Chair at the École Normale Supérieure. According to Kepel, “the French President’s approach aims to build a relationship of contractual opportunity between Europe and China in order to deflect immediate threats.” These threats encompass not only Russia, as the author highlights another area where Beijing can allegedly assist – immigration, which undoubtedly interests the readership of this conservative French newspaper. The professor notes that due to “[Egypt] being hit hard by a debt crisis, currency crisis, and hyperinflation, Chinese support is needed to ensure that the Arab demographic giant, with a population of over 100 million, does not spill its overflow unchecked onto the illegal immigration routes to Europe via the Mediterranean”.

Amidst all this talk of mediation and conflict resolution, tragedy struck this month with the outbreak of another civil war in the wider Mediterranean region. On April 15, clashes erupted in Khartoum and in Darfur between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, the successors of the brutal Janjaweed militias responsible for numerous crimes against humanity in Darfur.

International media has primarily focused on explaining the context behind this outbreak of hostilities in Sudan and highlighting Russia’s alleged role in the conflict, as there is a Russian naval presence in Port Sudan and Wagner mercenaries are present in the country. China, on the other hand, has so far not received significant coverage from the fourth estate, except for its operations to evacuate its citizens from the country.

One of the few exceptions comes from Italy’s paper of record La Repubblica, which published an article by Federico Donelli, a professor of international relations at the University of Trieste. Donelli explores the role of regional dynamics, in particular those regarding the flow of the Nile River and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which is being constructed by the Italian firm Webuild). He suggests that Egypt and Ethiopia may intervene in Sudan to safeguard their interests and expand their influence. He also notes that “Beijing remains the primary stakeholder in the Ethiopian dam… as the energy generated… is crucial to power its industrial districts in Ethiopia and support projects in neighboring Djibouti, a key outpost along the Maritime Silk Road”, implying that China may come to side with Ethiopia against Egypt (it is worth noting that Egyptian commentators do not appear to share to this confrontational view of Sino-Egyptian relations).

For long-time readers of the Observer and those who read our 2022 Report, the fact that a mainstream Italian newspaper showcased some interest in China’s growing presence in the wider Mediterranean may come somewhat as a shock. However, this is not an isolated case, as this month there has been a notable increase in Italian media attention toward Chinese influence in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn.

This increased interest from the Italian press may be due to the effectiveness and intensity of the Chinese government’s recent diplomatic efforts in the wider Mediterranean region, exemplified by the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Riyadh Summits, and the Beijing Agreement. Given the current low point in Sino-European relations, China’s now-established role in Italy’s strategic neighborhood may have finally become an issue of concern for Italian analysts. It is definitely this newfound concern that led Italian journalist Stefano Graziosi to define the decision by High Representative of the EU Joseph Borrell to nominate former Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio to be the next EU Special Representative for the Gulf region as a “serious geopolitical mistake.” In an article for the center-right-leaning magazine Panorama, Graziosi reminds readers of Di Maio’s support for Italy signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and his tenure as foreign minister in the second Conte government (September 2019-February 2021), which Graziosi considers to be “probably the most Sinophilic executive in recorded Italian history.”

Furthermore, the current Italian government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as part of its yet-to-be-unveiled “Mattei plan,” has prioritized strengthening ties with the countries of the wider Mediterranean to secure alternatives to Russian gas and prevent the departure of refugees and migrants to European shores. However, Rome has found itself struggling to offer a relevant alternative to Beijing’s well-established economic role in the region, prompting Italian media outlets to frame the two countries’ efforts in comparison. For instance, when covering Meloni’s state visit to Ethiopia (14-15 April), the Italian news outlet Formiche considered China’s substantial role in reconstructing and expanding the African country’s transportation and digital infrastructure as an obstacle for further Italian influence in the country. A similar framing of competition with China was evident in Il Foglio‘s reporting of Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani’s efforts to convince his G7 counterparts of the importance of “not losing Tunisia” (Tunisian analysts have been increasingly looking towards China as an alternative to the US, the EU and the IMF).

A final motivating factor may be the approaching deadline of December 2023 for Rome to decide whether to renew its participation in the BRI. Although Italy is the only G7 member to have joined the BRI, its involvement has not yielded significant economic benefits and has strained relations with the US and other NATO partners. Consequently, the Meloni government, aiming to strengthen its Transatlantic credentials in this era of great power competition, appears inclined not to renew the MOU on the BRI. However, Rome has yet to communicate a final decision on the matter. The newspaper Domani reported that “pending the inauguration of the new ambassador, Massimo Ambrosetti, [Italy’s] diplomatic staff in Beijing has advised those who hold official positions to keep a low profile during this phase.” This caution may be due to the possibility that if Italy decides to exit the BRI framework, Italy and Italian firms could face economic retaliation from China.

The Uyghur Question in Türkiye

To conclude this edition of the ChinaMed Observer, let us turn to some insights from the Turkish press. With 14 May 2023, the date of the Turkish general elections, rapidly approaching, Independent Türkçe published an article analyzing Chinese perspectives on the presidential candidates. The article posits that “the majority of Chinese academics believe that President Erdoğan will be president again” and that most Chinese wish for this outcome as well. This is because Erdoğan’s re-election as president is seen as a “safer option”, as, despite occasional tensions, in particular over the Uyghur issue, the current president is a known quandary, unlike his rivals.

The article points out that throughout Erdoğan’s twenty-year rule, all crises in Sino-Turkish relations have thus far been resolved, with Beijing having grown accustomed to dealing with him. Furthermore, the Chinese hold some suspicion toward the opposition parties. The IYI (Good) Party and the Gelecek (Future) Party, which are part of the six-party electoral alliance of the anti- Erdoğan opposition, profess a harsh stance against China and its policies towards its Uyghur minority. Nevertheless, Independent Türkçe regards these parties’ positions on the Uyghur issue as being primarily an electoral strategy aimed at undermining Erdoğan’s AKP-MHP alliance and that “China-Turkey relations will likely continue with little change even if there is a possible shift in power.”

However, not all Turkish parties strongly criticize China’s treatment of Uyghurs; in fact, some openly defend and praise Beijing’s “deradicalization” strategy. The left-wing Kemalist Vatan (Patriotic) Party, for instance, recently published an article in its party newspaper, Aydınlık Gazetesi, that celebrates China’s policies in Xinjiang and promotes the opportunities for Turkish business and investors present in this autonomous region. However, it must be noted that the Vatan Party’s stances are far from popular as in next month’s elections – spoiler warning – it will obtain only 0.10% of the vote and win 0 seats in the Turkish Parliament.

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