London (CNN) When Saudi Arabia and Iran buried the hatchet in Beijing on Friday, it was a game-changing moment both for a Middle East shaped by their decades-old rivalry and for the growing influence of China in the oil-rich region.
The announcement was surprising but expected. The two regional powers have been in talks to restore diplomatic relations for nearly two years. At times, the negotiators seemed to drag their feet, the deep distrust between the two countries seeming unshakeable.
Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia were taking place at the same time as negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the 2016 nuclear deal were teetering. The results of the two rounds of talks on Iran seemed linked – Riyadh and Washington have long walked in concert on foreign policy.
But a shift in regional alliances is underway. Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States have become strained in recent years, while China’s position has improved. Unlike Washington, Beijing has shown an ability to transcend the many rivalries that criss-cross the Middle East. China has forged good diplomatic relations with countries in the region, driven by stronger economic ties, free from Western human rights conferences.
In retrospect, Beijing is on the verge of brokering the latest diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East, which has been plagued by conflict for years, simultaneously underscoring the diminishing regional influence of the United States.
“While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as a mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis are not at their throats also benefits in the United States,” said Trita Parsi. , the executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute, tweeted on Friday.
Parsi argues that the development should trigger a moment of introspection on Washington’s Middle East policy. “What should worry American policymakers is if this becomes the new norm: the United States becomes so deeply embroiled in the conflicts of our regional partners that our maneuverability evaporates and our past role as a peacemaker is completely ceded to China,” he added.
End of a dark era
Friday’s deal could herald the end of a bloody era in the Middle East. Riyadh and Tehran have been at odds ideologically and militarily since Iran’s Islamic Revolution installed an anti-Western Shia theocracy in 1979.
These tensions began to escalate into a regional proxy war after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 escalated into civil conflict, with Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for influence in that country. oil-rich Arab.
Armed conflict between Saudi-backed militants and Iranian-backed armed groups has swept across much of the region in the decade and a half since.
In Yemen, a military campaign by the Saudi-led coalition to crush Iran-backed rebels has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. In Syria, Iran backed President Bashar al-Assad as he brutalized his own people, only to find strength in the face of rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Also in Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia have backed different factions, contributing to a two-decade political crisis that has taken a heavy economic and security toll on the small eastern Mediterranean country.
Diplomatic relations were officially severed in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, leading rioters in Tehran to burn down the Saudi embassy.
But a series of economic problems triggered by the pandemic and costly wars may have eroded the appetite for conflict, and Saudi and Iranian officials say they are eager to turn the page on this dark chapter.
The relaxation seems to go well beyond the resumption of diplomatic relations. Saudi and Iranian officials have said they will also work to reimplement a decades-old security cooperation pact and revive an even older agreement on technology and trade.
This is rare good news for a region still reeling from their rivalry. How that will pan out – and whether it can undo the havoc wrought by the rivalry – remains to be seen.
But analysts say China’s growing influence in the region has helped hedge both countries’ bets, altering a now outdated political calculus that once made Western capitals the most likely location for regional watershed deals.
“China is now the sponsor of this deal and given China’s strategic importance to Iran, this carries enormous weight,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst familiar with the thinking of Saudi leaders, told CNN. .
“If Iran were to break this agreement, it would undermine its ties with China, which has put all its prestige in the ‘tripartite’ agreement”.