China’s Role in Brokering Saudi-Iran Relations Challenges US Assumptions in the Middle East
The recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize relations, brokered with the help of Chinese mediation, challenges long-standing assumptions about the US role in the Middle East and signifies a shift in China's approach to the region. While the US and Israel are focused on preventing Iran from becoming stronger, Saudi Arabia is more focused on managing the threats and opportunities it faces that may result from Iran's weaknesses. The Saudi-Iranian normalization does not indicate a rapprochement, as Riyadh still views Tehran as a threat. However, it represents a shift in how Saudi Arabia views Iran, now seeing it as a more manageable threat.
Tehran is still doing things that Riyadh does not like in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. But Riyadh also understands that the Islamic Republic's leaders face widespread protests from Iran's citizens, especially its young women, and this is something that could spill over into the kingdom. While Saudi-Iranian competition for influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen will not end as a result of resumed diplomatic relations and visits between Saudi and Iranian leaders, any thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran or even Iran and the US would gradually reflect on the Yemen file, and more particularly the Houthis, for better or worse.
China's central role in brokering the renewal of Saudi-Iran relations could give Beijing an opening to signal to Washington and Israel its readiness to expand its peacemaker role in the Middle East in ways that would speak to the shared interests of both countries. However, China may be unwilling to risk taking the positions that such a role would demand, while its ideological impulses might ultimately outweigh its huge investments in a region where multiple and converging conflicts are still the order of the day.
For decades, the US has been viewed as the indispensable nation in the Middle East. However, the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran challenges long-standing assumptions about the US role there and signifies an entirely new shift in China's approach to the region. Some US officials and commentators have declared China's breakthrough as an urgent threat to American interests, arguing that the Biden administration's strategic misfires have opened the door to greater Chinese influence. But a more stable region with reduced Saudi-Iran hostilities benefits everyone, including the US.
The problem for China and the US is that the renewal of Iran-Saudi relations provides no obvious path to addressing Iran's nuclear program and its security implications for the entire region. A drone attack by pro-Iranian forces on a US military installation in eastern Syria in March, which killed an American contractor and wounded five US troops, illustrated these high stakes. The US missile strike carried out the next day after a second drone attack wounded another US service member underscored President Joe Biden's promise that the US would “act forcefully” to protect its forces. But it also provided a dramatic reminder of one imposing fact: absent effective measures to halt or reverse Iran's expanding nuclear enrichment program, the simmering conflict pitting Israel and the United States against Iran and its regional non-state allies could boil over into a wider military conflict.
In the long term, China would not want the Houthis to threaten any of its current or future investments in Saudi Arabia, especially on the Red Sea or in Yemen either. Given China's leverage over Iran, strategic expansion of ties with Saudi Arabia, recent sponsorship of the Iranian-Saudi deal, and its own strategic interests in the region, Beijing has the space to increase its diplomatic standing in Yemen, if it wants. In order for Yemen's peacebuilding initiatives to have a meaningful impact, they must tackle the internal causes of the conflict, reflect the progressive visions of the Yemeni populace, and garner support from both global and regional actors.
In conclusion, the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize relations, brokered with the help of Chinese mediation, signifies a shift in the region's power dynamics and challenges long-standing assumptions about the US role in the Middle East. While the renewal of Iran-Saudi relations provides no obvious path to addressing Iran's nuclear program and its security implications for the entire region, a more stable region with reduced Saudi-Iran hostilities benefits everyone, including the US. The success of peacebuilding efforts in Yemen depends on addressing the conflict's domestic roots, representing the forward-looking aspirations of the Yemeni people, and having regional and international backing.
0. “Why would the Saudis normalize relations with Iran? The answer may surprise you” The Hill, 7 Apr. 2023, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3936511-why-would-the-saudis-normalize-relations-with-iran-the-answer-may-surprise-you
1. “Iran's nuclear program poses problems for China and the US” Responsible Statecraft, 6 Apr. 2023, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2023/04/06/irans-nuclear-program-poses-problems-for-china-and-the-us
2. “Saudi delegation in Iran after historic deal” Bangkok Post, 8 Apr. 2023, https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/2545866/saudi-delegation-in-iran-after-historic-deal
3. “China brokering Saudi-Iran deal is sign US needs to change strategy” Business Insider, 5 Apr. 2023, https://www.businessinsider.com/china-saudi-iran-deal-means-us-needs-to-change-strategy-2023-4
4. “China and the Saudi-Iran rapprochement: Implications for Yemen” Middle East Institute, 5 Apr. 2023, https://mei.edu/publications/china-and-saudi-iran-rapprochement-implications-yemen