19 March 2023

How China Became a Peacemaker in the Middle East

Trita Parsi and Khalid Aljabri

While U.S. President Joe Biden’s Middle East team was focused on normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations, China delivered the most significant regional development since the Abraham Accords: a deal to end seven years of Saudi-Iranian estrangement. The normalization agreement signed last week by Riyadh and Tehran is noteworthy not only because of its potential positive repercussions in the region—from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen—but also because of China’s leading role, and the United States’ absence, in the diplomacy that led to it.

Washington has long feared growing Chinese influence in the Middle East, imagining that a U.S. military withdrawal would create geopolitical vacuums that China would fill. But the relevant void was not a military one, created by U.S. troop withdrawals; it was the diplomatic vacuum left by a foreign policy that led with the military and made diplomacy all too often an afterthought.

The deal represents a win for Beijing. By mediating de-escalation between two archenemies and major regional oil producers, it has both helped secure the energy supply it needs and burnished its credentials as a trusted broker in a region burdened by conflicts, something Washington couldn't do. Chinese success was possible largely because of U.S. strategic missteps: a self-defeating policy that paired pressure on Iran with supplication to Saudi Arabia helped China emerge as one of few major powers with clout over and trust with both of these states.

Yet Washington does deserve some credit for the agreement—if not the kind of credit it would want to claim. In inadvertent ways, its conflicted approach to the region spurred Saudi Arabia’s shift from confrontation toward diplomacy with Iran and thereby opened the way to Chinese mediation. As long as U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia believed they had carte blanche from Washington, they had little interest in regional diplomacy. Once Riyadh believed that the carte blanche had been withdrawn, diplomacy became their best option.


After four days of negotiations in Beijing last week, a joint trilateral statement announced an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to reopen embassies and resume diplomatic relations within two months. The two countries affirmed respect for each other's sovereignty and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs and revived old security cooperation and trade agreements. The deal included a future meeting between the Saudi and Iranian ministers of foreign affairs to implement the agreement and discuss means of enhancing bilateral relations.

The shifts in Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iran can be attributed to two events. First, Saudi Arabia faced a moment of truth in September 2019, when a drone and missile attack carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen damaged Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The attack was an apparent effort to inflict costs on the Saudi kingdom for supporting Washington’s “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran. The Saudis expected the United States to strike Iran in retaliation, given the longstanding U.S. policy of using military force to defend the oil resources of the Middle East, dating back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter. But President Donald Trump had no interest in risking war on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The Carter Doctrine was no more: Trump’s America First approach meant that all previous U.S. commitments and understandings were on shaky grounds.

Chinese success was possible largely because of U.S. strategic missteps.

The Iranian attacks on critical oil infrastructure and subsequent U.S. inaction represented a watershed moment for the Saudis, who realized they could no longer depend on Washington, even with a Saudi-friendly and anti-Iranian administration in office. According to Saudi insiders, the kingdom’s leaders felt personally “betrayed.” Only two years earlier, when the Saudis believed they had Trump and the United States entirely in their corner, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told Saudi national television that it was “impossible to talk” to Iran and that he would take the fight against Tehran “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” But after realizing that Saudi Arabia could no longer hide behind U.S. military power, direct diplomacy with Iran suddenly became much more attractive, as evidenced by Riyadh's welcoming of the Iraqi government’s efforts to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s efforts to defuse Saudi-Iranian tensions began in 2020, after the Abqaiq attacks. At first, the Iraqis were passing messages between the two sides. By April 2021, Iraqi facilitation had turned into mediation, eventually yielding six face-to-face meetings in Iraq and Oman between Iranian and Saudi officials.

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan reinforced the message sent by U.S. inaction in 2019, confirming to most Middle Eastern actors that the United States was indeed leaving the region. Even if it kept troops and bases scattered around, the United States had lost its will to fight in or for the Middle East. When Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, toured the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaders expressed their frustration with erratic U.S. policy. United Arab Emirates President Mohammed Bin Zayed, doubting Washington’s commitment to the security of its partners, asked for a formal congressionally approved security pact.


While Trump’s gravitation away from the Middle East pushed Saudi Arabia toward diplomacy, Biden’s subsequent “back to basics” approach also helped pave the way for China’s emergence as the new peacemaker. Even as it sought to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy to other challenges and pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration also set out to reassure regional partners that it remained committed to Middle East security. An earlier Biden plan to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels in the region was shelved. In large part, this was motivated by a global view of great-power competition, which reinforced the need to shore up partnerships that could counter Chinese influence. “Let me say clearly that the United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East,” Biden said in a speech during his visit to Saudi Arabia last year, adding, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” As Defense Undersecretary Colin Kahl put it in a speech at the Manama Dialogue forum in Bahrain last November, the U.S.-China struggle “is not a competition of countries, it is a competition of coalitions.”

No comments: