China’s efforts in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been seen by analysts as broader signs of a “changing global order”.
During talks in Beijing on Friday, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months. The agreement also stipulated affirming “the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states”.
Iranian state media posted images and video of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, shaking hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, with Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, standing in between.
China’s role as a mediator in resolving longstanding issues between the regional foes had not been made public prior to the announcement.
Wang reportedly said China will continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues and demonstrate responsibility as a major nation. He added that as a “good-faith” and “reliable” mediator, China has fulfilled its duties as a host for dialogue.
— Foreign Ministry 🇸🇦 (@KSAmofaEN) March 10, 2023
‘Low risk, high reward for China’
The two Gulf countries severed ties in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia Muslim scholar, triggering protests in Iran with protesters attacking its embassy in Tehran.
However, geopolitical conflict between the two goes back decades.
Both sides have stood on opposing sides and engaged in proxy wars in many conflict zones in the Middle East.
In Yemen, with the war now well into its eighth year, the Houthi rebels are backed by Tehran, while Riyadh leads a military coalition in support of the government.
Since 2021, talks have been held between both sets of officials in Iraq and Oman but no deals were reached.
Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera the brokered deal is evidence of a growing Chinese presence and its increased interest in playing a role in the region.
As the United States does not have good relations with Iran, China is “in a good position to broker an agreement”, he said.
“It’s a relatively low-risk and high-reward activity for China to engage in because the Chinese are not committed to any particular outcome,” Mogielnicki said.
“Better diplomatic linkages between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reduce the likelihood for regional conflict and will reduce regional tensions. That’s a good thing for China, for the US and for regional actors as well.”
Sina Toossi, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that China has “a clear interest” in improving ties and stability in the region as the Gulf is a vital source of energy for Beijing, which imports energy from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, when Saudi oil facilities were targeted by the Houthis, it temporarily affected the country’s oil production, leading to an increase in global oil prices of more than 14 percent over the weekend, the biggest spike in more than a decade.
Toossi said this was “the worst-case scenario for China, that a conflict in the Persian Gulf would affect its energy supply and economic interests”.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, told Al Jazeera that the US “increasingly has deviated from and increasingly pursued policies that simply make it impossible for it to be a credible mediator”.
“The US is increasingly taking sides in regional conflicts, becoming co-belligerent in regional conflicts which makes it very difficult for the US to play a peacemaking role,” Parsi said. “China did not take sides between Saudi and Iran, has worked very hard to not get dragged into their conflict and as a result, could play a peacemaking role.”
China’s breakthrough comes as various US media outlets reported this week that Israel and Iran were edging closer to war.
Toossi said that while China also has substantial political and economic relations with Israel, the US has “historically been giving support to Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and so it has not been able to play that [mediator] role”.
“I think 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 – that period is ending,” Toossi said.
“[For] countries like Saudi Arabia in the past decades, America was the only viable partner. Now, these countries have other options. China can give them a lot of support – economic, political, military relations – and Russia can do that, too.
“It is in their interest that they’re living side by side with Iran and Iran is not going anywhere. If the US is not going to give them unconditional support – for what I think [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman originally wanted against Iran, was a very confrontational policy – that they are willing to come to terms with Iran, and co-exist, which is I think the direction they are seemingly going in,” Toossi said.
Parsi said that after Saudi Arabia’s oil field was attacked, the US, under former president Donald Trump, made it clear that it would not get involved in a war with or for the Middle East.
The Biden administration then tried to correct this by signalling that it will stand by its regional partners, thinking that this alliance would be instrumental in its competition with China.
But, according to Parsi, by moving closer to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US “further entangled itself in the conflict of these countries and made it more difficult for itself to be a mediator, and China has taken advantage of this”.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have fought proxy wars in the region for decades, affecting Syria, Iraq Lebanon and Yemen. While the now normalised relations between the two are not going to automatically solve their vast geopolitical differences, Toossi said there is now “an opportunity for increased and sustained dialogue that could help bridge these differences”.
The trilateral statement published on Friday also significantly mentioned the 2001 security agreement and the broader 1998 cooperation agreement that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached, a major breakthrough at the time after diplomatic ties were cut in the 1980s following the Iranian revolution.
“By mentioning these agreements, it seems like both sides are trying to recapture the spirit of cooperation and collaboration … those agreements entailed a lot of economic, security, political cooperation and high-level diplomatic contact,” Toossi said.
“Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia were pretty good from 1997 until 2005-06. There’s potentially a willingness, it seems, to go back to that.”