China and The Developing Multipolar Order in the Middle East
Looking into the implications of the Saudi-Iran agreement
By Emil Avdaliani
On March 10th, two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement which lays out a step-by-step program on re-instating severed relations between the two nations. This was brokered by China, with a subsequent ceremony being held in Beijing. This rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran speaks volumes about China’s growing influence in the Middle East, especially amid the region’s traditional security guarantor, US’ distractions in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific region.
The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have a profound impact on the Middle East, affecting the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and security in the entire Persian Gulf region. This can indirectly lead to China playing a greater role in the Middle East, signalled earlier with Beijing holding numerous regional meetings in 2022 and hosting Iranian President Raisi in February this year.
As a part of the deal Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun discussing exchanging potential high-level visits. The two sides will make efforts to reduce enmity in the information sphere. For instance, one of the expected results of the deal is that the Saudis will decrease or altogether change the negative messaging through the Farsi-speaking news agency “Iran-International”, which is allegedly funded by Riyadh. Long seen (and blocked) as a serious problem by Iran, the Saudi concession would pave the way for a similar decrease in anti-Saudi rhetoric in the Iranian state-controlled media.
The most critical role, however, is played by China which due to its growing economic ties with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Iran (despite Tehran’s many complaints) have made the country highly dependent on the region’s oil supply and the need to maintain general political stability. Indeed, sporadic tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have made Beijing highly vulnerable to potential regional conflict, such as in 2019, when drone strikes nearly knocked out Saudi Arabia’s entire oil production industry.
With Chinese mediation the Saudis and Iranians have effectively developed a full-scale multi-vector foreign policy, showing independence in their external policy options. It is no coincidence that this rapprochement has taken place amid uncertainties around the United States position in the Middle East. While, it remains true that Washington extended its presence in Iraq, and has maintained its security cooperation with the Saudis and other Gulf States, yet China’s growing influence could be a harbinger of coming changes: the idea that the Gulf States would solely rely on the US when it comes to security issues but will cooperate with China on economic and investment ties needs to be reconsidered.
China’s reconciliation efforts also coincide with a series of simultaneous improvements of bilateral relations between several conflicting Middle East states. For instance, it is of note that while Turkiye also normalized diplomatic ties with the Saudis, Qatar made first steps to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors. Indeed, critics within the US government argue that under the Trump leadership, just two and half years ago, the Middle East was still dominated by the US, its peace initiatives worked well and under the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia was the next Arab country to normalize ties with Israel.
If China helped reach a consensus between such enemies as Iran and Saudi Arabia, other actors in the Middle East might hope that China could also help them find a common ground for commitments to trade rather than conflict and upholding ancient disputes.
In contrast, under Biden the US seems to have lost the initiative and China is gradually trying to fill in the emerging geopolitical gap. The Saudis are no longer relying on Washington and are increasingly turning towards China – which has created a new model of diplomacy in a particularly difficult regions by communicating with both sides rather than picking one over the other.
This promotes security via cooperation with all parties, while the US operates through the alliances system, which often limits Washington’s ability to act freely in the region. The dynamic is fairly clear. Trade ties and energy dependence could in the longer-term bring in China as an active security actor too, which would seriously curtail the United States traditional standing. China with the successful completion of the Iran-Saudi Arabia peace negotiations, could now push for expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
US politicians fear that China will move forward with its ambitions on reshaping the region’s railway and port infrastructure, which would deny/limit the US and other western countries access to the Middle East’s oil and gas resources. Another area of infrastructure projects is expected to be G5 and G6 initiatives. China might also use its increasingly cooperative ties with Iran and the Saudis to expand its arms sales, especially military drones, and missiles. Naval drills with Iran might also reach another level, while with the Saudis, Beijing will probably work on joint military exercises, greater intelligence sharing and satellite-communications. Helping the Saudis develop a domestic ballistic missile system is another possible area for cooperation.
More broadly, China might be laying the ground for more ambitious projects such as multilateral formats involving major actors in the Middle East. The transactional approach Beijing used so far has been successful, but to become an actor which is truly regarded as a reliable partner and in some cases even as arbiter, China needs to introduce an element of multilateralism. It is unlikely that the Chinese multilateralism will be anything like the Western one (with requirements regarding internal governance style or official alliances), but it will serve as an umbrella for constructing a more secure Middle East.
It is not a coincidence that the Chinese involvement in the peace talks followed Beijing’s release of the Global Security Initiative (GSI). The latter, which remains relatively obscure in the West, does not guarantee that it will prevent all tensions. Instead, the GSI is positioned to serve as a model for helping navigate through rising tensions and existing opportunities.
If China demands stark choices from Middle Eastern countries, this would, most likely, scare its partners. In order for an ambitious agenda be acceptable for a bigger number of states, the new world order ideas should not be openly directed against any other state, but rather be more striving toward winning the trust of other actors through offering fewer radical scenarios. Trust and prestige are hard to attain, but without these two components constructing a viable Middle East order is an impossible task.
Trust and prestige are won not through forcing limited options on other actors, but rather through internal strength of a state which radiates and serves as an example for emulation for other states.
Beijing is taking advantage of the fact that not all countries are seeing the geopolitical order in Middle East in stark terms. For many in the Global South, making choices between Beijing and Washington is a non-starter. Rather they seek their own agenda, which is influenced by what the US and China want, but only partially. For the Middle East the rise of China is bringing opportunities of balancing foreign relations. Saudis and Gulf States are unwilling to replace their fixation on the West (or the US) with dependence on China, which means that multi-vectorism in foreign policy has become a fashionable and more so workable approach. It allows for a greater room for maneuverability, which has been absent in the Middle East over recent years.
The Chinese will remain pragmatic when it comes to the Middle East politics and especially to relations with Iran. They see that the country is under heavy sanctions and that overall it is a market containing a high level of risk. Chinese companies are simply not willing to threaten their companies’ interests and come under US sanctions. Ironically coinciding with Iranian President Raisi’s Beijing visit, Sinopec, China’s energy giant, ceased its operations in Iran’s Yadaravan oil field. Though later denied by the Iranian officials on the ground that the negotiations are still ongoing, the move indicates how sensitive China is to the sanctions imposed on Iran. This is not the first time Chinese companies have withdrawn from Iran’s gas and oil industry.
Chinese pragmatism is also seen in a nuanced understanding of Iran’s limited choices. Beijing knows that Iran needs China, especially when balancing pressure from the collective West. And although Tehran harbours no illusions about Beijing’s aspirations in the Middle East and the Gulf, it also cannot allow for rupture or even slight downgrade in bilateral ties with China. The issue is that Iran now wants more than just rhetorical cooperation on the need to curb US power in Eurasia. Capital investments and support in practical matters is what Iran now truly wants – and expects to receive from China.
Most importantly, Beijing will seek, if not supplanting the US from the region, certainly significant growth in its profile. This could include building a peace-making role, introducing various political formats to opposing sides so that despite disagreements, conflicted partners would nevertheless talk to each other. Beijing will also be careful as too much responsibility could be counterproductive and for Beijing it is critical at this stage to manage between expectations from local actors and its own interests.
However, the Iran-Saudi Arab deal has dangers too. Perhaps, Beijing’s biggest dilemma comes from Iran, which is unlikely to budge on its ambitions to dominate the region. Tehran is not holding back on its nuclear ambitions either. Iran may bring tensions down if it suits its geopolitical calculus, but it is unlikely to be making fundamental changes to its pursuit of regional dominance. Saudi Arabia too, despite its growing ties with China will not be replacing fixation on Washington with that of Beijing. This continuing cooperation with the US in everything from intelligence-sharing to military drills will also remain a powerful constraining factor for a long-term rapprochement between the two erstwhile rivals.
Emil Avdaliani is a regional political commentator.
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