In an unprecedented turn of events, Iran and Saudi Arabia have come to a momentous agreement on March 10, 2023, which has the potential to bring about a transformative shift in the political landscape of the Middle East. After years of adversarial relations, these regional rivals have chosen to set aside their differences and re-establish diplomatic ties. The accord includes the reopening of embassies and a pledge to respect each other’s sovereignty, as well as refrain from intervening in each other’s internal affairs. This historic agreement is a significant diplomatic triumph, which marks a step towards regional cooperation in the Middle East. The Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement is likely to have far-reaching implications, not only for the region but also for the global community, with the potential for increased stability and prosperity.
From Foes to Friends: The New Dawn of Iran-Saudi Relations
Following four days of intense negotiations in China, the two sides issued their joint statement, announcing this unanticipated diplomatic move, which has left many governments across the globe in awe. The political significance of the Middle East and the responsibilities that Iran and Saudi Arabia hold in terms of regional security make this agreement a monumental event.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been at odds with each other, with differences rooted in philosophical and political ideologies, as well as the desire for Middle Eastern dominance. In 2016, following the death of a Shia religious leader, diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed, leading to a deterioration of ties between Iran and the West. The ensuing series of sanctions on Iran had a profound impact on the Iranian economy. Meanwhile, the conflict in Yemen and the COVID-19 pandemic have also taken a toll on the economy of Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the Ukrainian conflict has shifted the course of global politics and the economy, and the recent reconciliation in the Middle East marks a significant shift. The conflict not only affected the economic sphere but also emphasized the importance of energy and regional cooperation. Thus, the current reunion between Tehran and Riyad is one of the many consequences of the Ukraine war.
China’s role as a mediator
The significance of China’s involvement in this momentous political upheaval cannot be overstated. This historic incident has cemented China’s diplomatic success and regional preeminence, thanks to the unique approach that China adopted in mediating the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The mediation process was long and protracted, fraught with various obstacles that hindered progress at different stages. As a result, it can be said that this process was shrouded in secrecy, away from the prying eyes of many.
However, the question of why China choose to take on this role and why Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to Beijing’s mediation has become a topic of much discussion in recent days. As a global leader in promoting peace, China has chosen to act as a neutral intermediary between Saudi Arabia and Iran. By bringing both parties to the negotiating table, China has gained credibility and respect from both sides, making this a diplomatic triumph for China.
Also, a number of regional alliances have shifted, and there is a greater presence of superpowers at the regional level. Saudi Arabia’s connections with the US, on the other hand, have created a void in recent years. China, on the other hand, has shown the ability to overcome a number of difficulties in the Middle East. Moreover, through promoting economic relations, China has established favorable diplomatic ties with the countries in the region. On the other hand, world reality demonstrates that the two countries have become weaker in a number of domestic sectors as a result of their long-standing military operation and mutually adversarial connections surrounding the Yemen War.
The importance of reconciliation from the Iranian and Saudi perspectives
The settlement has been widely welcomed in Iran, with senior officials praising it as a step towards reducing tensions and strengthening regional security. Moreover, Iranian media said that the accord was a “defeat” for the West and Israel.
On the other hand, as usual, western sanctions have harmed Iran’s economy, and a significant number of protestors focused on the movement has diverted attention away from Iran’s continuing politics. As a result, China was Iran’s largest business partner for a decade, from 2012 to 2022. The amount of trade between China and Iran climbed by 7% in 2022, reaching $15,8 billion USD. Because of Iran’s strong economic ties with China, it is now simpler for Iran to participate in the discussions between the Saudi leadership and China, which Beijing is mediating.
Also, Saudi Arabia is the most powerful and influential Arab country. Its foreign policy has an effect on both regional and global matters. As a result, Saudi Arabia supports this stance for a number of internal reasons. Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s current crown prince, has suggested a profound socioeconomic change of the kingdom by 2030. As a result, regional cooperation serves as a regulator, which is why the Saudi government wants to maintain strong connections with Iran.
Again, Saudi Arabia has already suffered significant economic losses as a consequence of the crisis in Yemen, which has had a negative impact on the country’s economy. Moreover, the extended global economic crisis has put a pressure on Saudi Arabia’s economy.
Additionally, considering China’s prominence as Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and its recent economic boom, the Saudi government’s support for China-mediated talks with Iran is understandable. Since China is the world’s largest crude oil consumer, it imports the crudest oil from Saudi Arabia. In 2021, China’s crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia amounted for 77% of all imports from Saudi Arabia and more than half of the $3 billion in bilateral trade. Yet, Saudi Arabia purchased more than $30 billion in technology, telephones, and lighting from China in 2022.
Consequences of the reconciliation
As the future of this shift unfolds, we see the Middle East’s needs rising further in the future, and China is going to take on a new role in international affairs, bringing a new dimension to its relationship with Western nations. In other words, while there was previously tension with the West over China’s economic concerns, China’s diplomatic triumph will now take on a new dimension.
This diplomatic victory will also be a game-changer for China, since it will alter the West’s position in Middle Eastern politics. On the other hand, the accord demonstrates how effectively China used its diplomatic talents to fill the strategic hole left by the United States and Russia and demonstrate that it is a dependable global partner.
Furthermore, great connections between Saudi Arabia and Iran are essential for the peace and security of the whole Middle East, which will contribute to bringing the region to a position of non-conflict in the future and addressing the current concerns via diplomatic engagement. The development of such a peace might result in further changes to other remaining regional issues. This accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran will serve as a template for the resolution of future crises.
Conversely, if Saudi Arabia and Iran collaborate, the conflict in Yemen would end quickly, which would be a tremendous victory for the world. Yemen is one of the world’s extreme humanitarian crises, with over 23,4 million people in need of aid, including almost 13 million children. The accords will thus, from a humanitarian aspect, pave the door to peace for these innocent lives.
In addition, the reconciliation serves as a model of regional collaboration for developing countries. Furthermore, given the present state of global political divisiveness, preserving regional stability and collaboration is crucial for continued economic expansion.
Thus, the Saudi-Iranian relationship will be tested during the next two months due to regional and global conditions. The agreement’s viability will depend on Israel’s pressure on the United States, the trajectory of Iran-European relations, and Iran’s honesty and goodwill. As a consequence of this agreement, China’s diplomatic success and the signing of peace in regional politics have created a new arena for China’s rivalry with the Western world.
Lastly, from a western perspective, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unquestionably a good indication, since the United States has already accepted the reconciliation. Yet, China’s participation in the process underscored the limited influence of western power in the Middle East. Western nations, on the other hand, will not underline China’s participation in the issue.
In summary, the renewal of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is undeniably one of the most consequential political developments in the Middle East. However, it will take time before the results of this process can be assessed and evaluated for their actual impact. In addition, this process has unveiled new shades in international politics, as China’s role as a mediator has presented the Western world with a fresh challenge. Nonetheless, for developing nations and the entire Middle East region, this reconciliation process has served as a model for peace talks with the potential to alleviate human suffering. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated, as it paves the way for a new era of regional cooperation and stability.
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About the author:
Research Associate The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA) Dhaka, Bangladesh