Saudi-Iran Deal a Coup for China, but Regional Reordering Remains Uncertain
China's recently brokered Saudi-Iran deal may spell trouble for the American foothold in the Middle East.
Beijing’s diplomatic coup in brokering a normalization of Saudi-Iran relations appears to be the stuff of an American nightmare. Once bitter foes in a regional cold war, Saudi Arabia and Iran now seem firmly enmeshed in China’s orbit as Beijing seemingly takes on the mantle of global leader. As recriminations are hurled across Foggy Bottom for America’s countless Middle Eastern misadventures, it seems that Samuel Huntington’s prophesized Sino-Islamic alliance is gearing up for a long-awaited “Clash of Civilizations” with the Western world.
Chinese interests in the Middle East have been growing over the past two decades. Chinese trade with the region surpassed that of the United States as early as a decade ago and now far exceeds Washington’s economic relationship with the region. Its flagship Belt and Road Initiative also traverses several Middle Eastern countries, giving Beijing an interest in upholding regional stability. Stability would also improve Chinese energy security, given that the Middle East remains a crucial source of oil for China. With Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities causing a 14% spike in oil prices, reducing Saudi-Iran tensions would see China prevent future occurrences of disruption to its oil supply, as well as that of the rest of the world.
China has no doubt gained considerable soft power kudos for their skillful diplomacy, helping Tehran and Riyadh come to a consensus once considered nigh on impossible. The fact that it was Beijing that brokered the agreement implies that China now enjoys some measure of trust from Iran and Saudi Arabia – something that Washington now lacks given its retrenchment from the Iran Nuclear Deal and human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia. These developments, in addition to the US’ numerous other mistakes and U-turns in the Middle East, suggest that Washington’s dominance of this region is now in question.
It is far too early, however, to claim that the Middle East is now united under Chinese influence. Firstly, a re-establishment of diplomatic ties does not imply that attempts to improve relations substantively will succeed. Even when both sides maintained diplomatic ties with one another, the Iran-Saudi bilateral relationship remained fraught, with both sides experiencing periods of conflict and relative cooperation. The decision to normalize ties suggests that Tehran and Riyadh have agreed for now to revert to status quo ante – there remain little details yet as to whether both sides will build upon this initial rapprochement.
There are also significant structural factors hindering a substantive change in the fractious nature of Saudi-Iranian ties. Both states are major regional powers with ambitions for regional hegemony and leadership of the Islamic world. It is unlikely that either will suspend their respective ambitions for the sake of peaceful co-existence. Beyond structural factors, both sides are divided by their fundamentally antithetical systems of government and region-wide sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia’a Muslims. The new deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran does not solve any of these structural problems, suggesting that these factors may prove fuel for future conflicts.
The deal highlights the sheer depth of the strategic partnership between China and Iran. Tehran and Beijing recently signed a 25 year comprehensive strategic partnership, with the latter providing $400 billion of investment and economic and security services in return for a 30% discount on Iranian oil sales. Iran’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia perhaps highlights strong levels of strategic coordination between China and Iran. Tehran will now receive stronger Chinese support against the US in return for toning down its rivalry with Riyadh, acting as a counterweight to the Washington-sponsored Abraham Accords. That said, this tightening of relations has already been “priced in” by Washington given US tensions with both countries.
It is questionable, however, as to how far Saudi Arabia will pivot towards Beijing. To be sure, the Saudi Prime Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, resents Washington’s growing diplomatic distancing of the Kingdom over human rights concerns. Enlisting Beijing to broker talks with Iran is the latest in the Crown Prince’s shift to a more non-aligned foreign policy designed to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on the US. The Kingdom aims to gain greater strategic autonomy for itself by playing off the US and China against one another, allowing it greater flexibility to craft a foreign policy that best serves its national interests.
Yet, ties between Riyadh and Beijing remain primarily economic and functional rather than strategic. Given the deep security ties that Saudi Arabia shares with the US, the Prince – a former defense minister – is unlikely to risk losing the Kingdom’s US-based military infrastructure through a sudden pivot. Switching to a non-US system will draw funds away from the Crown Prince’s ambitious economic development agenda. The Crown Prince has even requested for US security guarantees in return for normalizing ties with Israel, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s continued regard for the US as a security partner. With Riyadh needing Washington as a counterweight against Beijing as well as vice versa, US-Saudi ties are seen to remain robust for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, China’s success in brokering Saudi-Iran rapprochement serves as a timely wake-up call to the US. Having made severe blunders in the Middle East in the last two decades (e.g. withdrawing from JCPOA, abandoning the Kurds in Syria), Washington is no longer trusted by regional states. With China increasingly making inroads into the region as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, regional states may increasingly turn to Beijing as an alternative. To be sure, Chinese influence is still significantly weaker than that of the US in terms of political and military influence despite a considerable advantage in economic ties. The Middle East is also arguably less important to US interests than it used to be. Still, given the region’s strategic importance and key alliance commitments in the region, Washington must rethink and adapt its Middle East policy if it is to remain regionally relevant in a multipolar world.
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The views and information contained in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Asia Cable.