China, in March, played a pivotal role in facilitating the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranian Foreign Minister disclosed during a news conference in Beirut a month ago that the two nations would soon open embassies in each other’s capitals.
Initially downplayed by national media in both countries, the agreement gained global attention, making headlines worldwide and trending on social media in several places. The terms of the deal included the enforcement of two long-neglected agreements: one focusing on security cooperation and another covering a broad range of areas such as the economy, trade, investment, science, sports, and youth. These agreements were originally concluded in 1998 and 2001 under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami and Crown Prince Abdullah, respectively.
Over the past six decades, diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran experienced three periods of severance, with two instances occurring after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In each case, Iran initiated the tensions, prompting Saudi Arabia to respond by cutting diplomatic relations. The first two disruptions in 1942 and 1987 lasted two to three years, and relations were restored without the involvement of a third country.
In the most recent episode, the severance persisted for seven years, with Iraq, Oman, and China playing roles at different times in reconciliation efforts. This highlights the heightened hostility between the two nations. Saudi Arabia came to the negotiating table as a last resort amid the ongoing war in Yemen without a clear victory in sight, providing Iran with an opportunity. Initially, Saudi Arabia sought commitments from Iran to refrain from interference in Saudi Shia affairs and to cease military support for the Houthis before restoring relations.
However, due to the fragmentation of the Yemen coalition, international criticism of the war, humanitarian crises, and rising costs, coalition members, especially Arab countries, either withdrew, failed to provide support, or pursued individual interests. The UAE withdrew troops after sustaining casualties, seized Socotra Island, and aimed to capture the strategic port of Hodeida, crucial for humanitarian assistance.
Egypt engaged in limited military support, while Sudan reduced its participation due to domestic calls for a civilian government. The Biden administration’s shift toward NATO and withdrawal of some troops from Saudi Arabia further signalled a change in U.S. priorities, with Gulf security seeming less of a priority. The U.S.-China standoff in the Pacific and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 prompted Saudi Arabia to reassess its stance, choosing negotiations over confrontation with Iran.
The agreement reflects a shared understanding of a rules-based international order and principles of conflict resolution rather than specific solutions. Both Saudi Arabia and China have consistently emphasized norms such as nonintervention in the domestic affairs of nations, forming a basis for their partnership since 2006.
China’s role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran extended to addressing the long-standing dispute over the conflict in Yemen. Initially, Riyadh insisted on preconditions for talks, including Iran ceasing support for the Houthis. However, China helped broker a compromise, with Saudi Arabia agreeing to restore diplomatic relations before Iran halted its support to the Houthis.
The trilateral statement lacks an explicit Iranian commitment to Yemen, but it suggests that Chinese mediation led to the agreement, providing a two-month grace period for goodwill before diplomatic relations are reinstated. Saudi Arabia relies on China’s understanding of its position in Yemen and views China’s vested interest in regional diplomatic leadership positively.
Notably, China’s mediation is seen as having the leverage to ensure Iran’s compliance, especially concerning its regional policy. While this compensates for Saudi Arabia’s traditional lack of coercive tools, it also puts Beijing in the spotlight if Iran fails to uphold its commitments.
The agreement marks a shift from previous failed attempts at dialogue with Iran, where Western and regional powers were involved. China’s role as a ‘sponsor’ is a new dynamic, and it addresses specific Saudi requests without framing them as Chinese security initiatives or part of a nuclear deal.
However, there are two potential downsides. First, China positions itself as an equal friend to both countries, which may not align with Saudi preferences. Second, China signals a certain distance from the outcome, emphasizing its priorities in the Middle East as primarily economic, with security being a secondary consideration.
The recent diplomatic engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran signifies a shared recognition of mutual interests and the potential benefits derived from diplomatic relations. Both countries appear to be motivated by economic imperatives, understanding that resolving their differences could lead to positive outcomes.
According to Vakil, the breaking of the deadlock between Riyadh and Tehran aligns with economic goals. This breakthrough has the potential to reduce threats such as missile and drone attacks on the kingdom, which is a critical aspect for the success of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. Meanwhile, Tehran, facing months of protests and economic isolation due to sanctions, sees the need to break out of this isolation and strengthen its economic position.
The importance of maritime security in the Gulf region is highlighted by Saudi Arabia. Given that a significant portion of the world’s oil is exported from this region, ensuring stability in maritime activities is crucial. The Gulf has witnessed periodic skirmishes, including Iran seizing foreign ships. Addressing these security concerns becomes a shared interest for both nations as it directly impacts the global oil trade and economic stability.
The recent agreement between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China sheds light on the distinctions in Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations, particularly in comparison to its partnerships with Russia. In the realm of foreign policy, the pivotal agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia is centred around the OPEC+ agreement. Notably, Russia’s agreement to provide advanced military equipment and cyber warfare capabilities to Iran in exchange for Iranian drones, which have been used in Ukraine, poses a direct security threat to Saudi Arabia.
The March 10 agreement is strategically significant for Saudi Arabia as it aims to counterbalance potential collaboration between Russia, Iran, and China, which could bolster Iran’s offensive actions, facilitate its evasion of U.S. and international sanctions, and lead to increased Russian and Iranian influence in the Chinese oil market, potentially encroaching on Saudi Arabia’s share. Against the backdrop of global power competition and the Western isolation of Russia and Iran due to the Ukraine conflict, the agreement can be seen as Saudi Arabia’s effort to avoid being caught in the crossfire of escalating tensions.
Fundamentally, Saudi Arabia maintains the position that Iran should have no role in the Arab world. This stance serves as a basis for enhanced cooperation with the United States and Western powers, moving from defence to deterrence against Iran. While Saudi Arabia pragmatically acknowledges a regulated coexistence in the Gulf, it adopts a strategy of competition and containment in Syria and Iraq.