It is a patch-up that was bound to make headlines. After seven years on a break—and bitter hostilities—Saudi Arabia and Iran will restore diplomatic relations, thanks to China. More than just being an end to the conflict, the Saudi Arabia-Iran reconciliation, marks the arrival of China as a peace-broker on the world stage.
“From whichever perspective, the handshake and reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing are a milestone, and they also provide a template for the resolution of complex disputes. People in regions and areas that have suffered from war, such as Yemen, Syria, Ukraine and other parts of the world, can see hope for dialogue and the dawn of peace,’’ an editorial in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party read.
The implications of the two countries choosing to step away from hostility—in terms of the ideological as well as the Sunni-Shia divide—is immense for the region. The details of the agreement are yet to be revealed.
Iran has promised to prevent attacks against Saudi Arabia, including those from the Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen. China is becoming part of the equation in the Middle East, an American playground, nudging Saudi Arabia—a long-term ally of the US—towards Iran.
The idea to bring the two countries together is not new. There have been talks in Iraq and Oman from 2021. “By 2022, the two countries had held five rounds of intensive talks in Baghdad,’’ according to The Story Behind China’s Role in the Iran-Saudi Deal in the Stimson Centre. “In February 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China and met Xi. According to another Iranian diplomat in the delegation who also spoke to this author on the condition of anonymity, Iran found Saudi Arabia’s proposal for a resumption of ties acceptable,’’ the article read.
That the deal, announced at the same time as President Xi Jiping was confirmed for his third term, is very much a message that he wants to play a bigger role. The announcement also comes at time when Xi is likely to speak to Zelensky over video and ties up with his ambition to be recognised as a global leader.
China has revealed last month—laid down again at the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Delhi—the 12-point formula for peace between Ukraine and Russia. And the brokering of the Saudi-Iran deal is to prove China’s credentials in the field.
America, so far, has welcomed the deal. “This is something that we think is positive insofar as it promotes what the United States has been promoting in the region, which is de-escalation, a reduction in tensions,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan has been quoted as saying. The Americans are hoping that the reconciliation helps in reducing the conflict in Yemen, which has turned into a proxy war. The conflict has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14,500 civilians, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
The US attempts to rekindle the deal with Iran may have not met with success. Despite the frostiness that has crept into the relationship with the Saudis with President Joe Biden, there is a dependency on America on defence that is unlikely to go away soon. And with the country announcing an order of 121 planes from Boeing, the American handshake is still tight.