The surprise deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran is making headlines across the globe. However, more than this diplomatic breakthrough, it is China’s mediation that is being dubbed monumental. This is primarily because playing the go-between in Middle East’s biggest rivalry has increased China’s diplomatic clout much beyond that of the United States and Russia. This, among other things, makes China all the more pre-eminent while giving it greater access in the region and beyond. The deal was somewhat surprising, especially against the backdrop of the Abraham Accords, an America-sponsored series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states like the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. The said Accords involved both carrots and sticks, with Arab states being scared by the threat of the Iranian boogeyman while getting assurances of both military and economic cooperation from Israel and the U.S. in exchange for recognizing the former. Therefore, it is instructive to understand what motivated Saudi Arabia to commit to a deal with Iran.
Riyadh had been feeling the heat quite literally from Tehran in the past few years from all corners. In the north and north-west, Iranian and Iran-backed militias have played a pivotal role in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and in supporting the Assad regime, gaining power and influence in the process. In the south, Iranian backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been a headache, with Houthis firing rockets into Saudi territory, most notably hitting an Aramco installation last year. In the east, Shia-dominated provinces and a sizable Shia population in Bahrain pose a threat with their traditional religious alignment with Iran. It seems only the Red Sea and allies like Egypt and Sudan to the West offer the Kingdom some respite.
In such a situation, to de-escalate would indubitably be in the interests of all parties involved except the U.S. and Israel. De-escalation and normalization between Iran and KSA, and, by extension, with the rest of the GCC would only mean a lesser economic squeeze on Iran from U.S. nuclear sanctions and a lower impetus for Arab states to normalize ties with Israel at the risk of alienating their local populations. Sentiments on the Arab street, as we witnessed during the FIFA World Cup, do not reflect the governmental fanfare around the so-called “Abraham Accords”.
Most importantly, while normalization with the rest of the “Muslim World” can be sold to the Iranian public by the Iranian government, it in no way will stop Iran from continuing its war with Israel. But the real question to ask is this: What is China’s interest in ensuring such a de-escalation? It can certainly not be just to champion the Palestinian cause. In fact, China has had a positive view of the Abraham Accords, arguing that it could help reduce conflict in the region. Also, it maintains vibrant relations with Israel while supporting Palestinian statehood.
The answer lies in the competing approaches of the U.S. and China towards the Middle East, Eurasia, and the world in general. The U.S. still suffers from a Cold War mentality where its alliances in the Middle East and Eurasia, in general, were safeguards to stem the spread of communism/Soviet Union up to the 1980s. Today, too, the U.S. is actively trying to contain China. Whether or not it will be successful in containing or isolating the largest population and economy remains to be seen. However, it is noteworthy how such a policy makes mere chess pieces of the other countries in this region.
This policy also displays the far-removed or distant nature of U.S. foreign policy. Wall Street or Silicon Valley will have few stakes in ensuring that Yemeni children do not die of starvation, or that ethnoreligious conflicts in Iraq come to an end. As long as children in New York or California can count on their government to ensure they will be growing up in the world’s largest superpower, U.S. governments will just do fine.
A similar argument could be made for the children growing up in Shanghai or Shenzhen, but peace in Yemen and Iraq is essential for Beijing , not because the Chinese are altruistic, anti-war activists, but because there is a major difference in the development path policy-makers in Beijing have chosen for themselves. For example, the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) will, from a Chinese perspective, ensure that all roads lead to Beijing as once they led to Rome. While this may be understandably unbearable for the U.S., it has become the most attractive avenue for countries across Asia, Africa, and Southern and Eastern Europe, to boost their sinking economies.
With a global recession and domestic issues brewing, the U.S. finds itself unable to match both the quantum and speed of China’s economic cooperation deals with countries across the BRI. China’s vision of an integrated BRI makes peace and conflict resolution in the many troubled countries a strategic priority for Beijing. Unlike the U.S. stated aim of exporting democracy, China has no qualms about the countries it is dealing with.
China’s stated principles of win-win cooperation and “non-interference” in the internal matters of any country make it a friend for all, ranging from the most vibrant democracies to the most ruthless dictatorships. What matters to China is its growth trajectory. Those who frame this great power competition through the lens of ethics, freedom, and human rights must remember that, despite the stated aim of leading the “free world”, the U.S. has and will continue to support the apartheid regime in Israel and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia.
This is geopolitics. Weaponizing narratives about freedom, democracy, and human rights, to selectively penalize countries is a tool of geopolitics. The U.S. must pay some attention to these notions because of its internal form of government (democracy). China, however, has no such restrictions because of its own peculiar form of government. This is why China will hail normalization treaties between Israel and Arab countries even if sponsored by the U.S. and then broker peace between KSA and Iran, too. For China, the conflicts between these countries hold far lesser value compared to its own grand vision of global connectivity and trade along the BRI, for which peace and stability are pre-requisites.
Sheharyar Malik is a Lahore-based independent analyst.