By Prof. Yang Chen *
On March 10, 2023, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran issued a tripartite joint statement in Beijing, announcing that Saudi Arabia and Iran had reached an agreement, including agreeing to restore diplomatic relations between the two sides and reopen their embassies and representative offices within a maximum of two months. The statement also stated that both sides appreciate and thank the Chinese leaders and government for hosting and supporting this meeting and promoting its success. Given the great difficulty of restarting diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, some medias regard the restoration of the relationship between the two countries as a “reconciliation of the century” or a “great changes in the Middle East”, while others argue that the important mediation role is a major diplomatic victory for China.
As State Councilor Wang Yi said, this is an attempt by the Middle East countries to uphold strategic independence, strengthen solidarity and coordination, get rid of external interference, and truly take the future and destiny of the Middle East into their own hands. It is in line with the current world trend of seeking security and promoting development. It also demonstrates the significance of China’s global security initiative, which will have a profound impact on the development of the two countries, the region, and even the global pattern.
Saudi-Iran reconciliation is a successful practice of the Global Security Initiative
In April 2022, President Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative for the first time at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022. In February 2023, the “Global Security Initiative Concept Paper” was officially released, which is an important measure for China to promote the implementation of the initiative. Subsequently, the Chinese side issued the document “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, which proposed a comprehensive and feasible solution to the Ukraine crisis. In March 2023, with the support of China, Saudi Arabia and Iran held a dialogue in Beijing. The Saudi-Iran Beijing Dialogue has become a successful practice of vigorously implementing global security initiatives. This also shows that China is not only the proposer of the global security initiative, but also the activist in implementing the initiative.
As the saying goes, “internal causes play a decisive role”, so the most fundamental reason for this reconciliation is also internal reasons. First, Saudi Arabia and Iran are tired of geopolitical competition. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, which in 2003 changed the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and enabled the establishment of a Shia regime in Iraq. The Arab Spring of 2011 and the Syrian crisis severely deteriorated the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The emergence of ISIS enabled Iran to successfully engage deeply in Iraq’s domestic politics. It seems that the Arc of Shia has transformed from imagination to reality, further exacerbating the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the 2015 Yemen War as the climax of the proxy war. In general, it can be seen that there have been three camp-based conflicts in the Middle East. Türkiye, Saudi Arabia and Iran all represent different interest groups in the Middle East. The three countries compete with each other but cannot conquer the rivals while Israel stands idly by and benefit from the chaos without any losses.
Second, the domestic development processes of Saudi Arabia and Iran have also undergone huge changes. After Muhammad bin Salman came to power in 2017, he wanted to reconstruct the national identity of Saudi Arabia, trying to weaken the influence of Wahhabism in Saudi politics, providing some space for secularization reform, and providing a good social environment for the implementation of the 2030 Vision. Iran, on the other hand, is facing serious domestic economic problems, of which some incidents often trigger protest. Therefore, it is also necessary for Iran to ease its relations with neighboring countries and provide better external conditions for the recovery of its economy. In the end, after constant confrontations, Saudi and Iran have suffered internal injuries, but they still cannot change their relative balance of power between the two. Now it is time to focus on their own development process, otherwise they will be easily abandoned by the times.
Third, Saudi Arabia and Iran have significantly improved their intentions and capabilities of strategic autonomy. For Saudi Arabia, the United States exerts political and economic pressure on it. After the outbreak of the Khashoggi incident, the United States continuously attacked Saudi Arabia and accused it of human rights issues. After the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the United States continued to pressure Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, suppress oil prices, and damage Saudi’s economic interests. Besides, the United States is basically self-sufficient in oil, and the strategic importance of the Middle East to it is decreasing. More importantly, Saudi Arabia also faces difficulties in ensuring its security from the United States, especially with the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, which surprised US allies. It turned out that the US strategic contraction from Central Asia and the Middle East was true, lamenting that “being an enemy of the US is dangerous, but being an ally of the US is even more dangerous”. For Iran, the threat from the United States is even more serious. It has imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iran, constantly threatened to solve the Iran’s nuclear issue by force, and publicly assassinated Iranian generals and nuclear weapons experts. However, after the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many Middle Eastern countries did not choose sides in the US-Russia game, which greatly enhanced their strategic autonomy.
Saudi-Iran reconciliation heralds the decline of US influence in the Middle East
Although the two parties have been negotiating for a long time under the mediation of Iraq and Oman, they finally chose to reach an agreement in China, which also shows their trust in China. As a matter of fact, this reconciliation is not a simple one, but a reconciliation between leaders of Sunni and Shia factions, and it is clear that the two countries are not afraid of the possible chain reaction that follows. This also indicates that the entire Islamic world no longer fears the pressure from Israel and the United States, indicating the decline of American hegemony in the Middle East.
In recent years, a term that has been discussed in China’s international relations academic circle is “great changes unseen in a century”. Looking at the regional order of the Middle East over the past century, since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the nations and countries in the Middle East have never become the masters of its own destiny. The 20th century has always been in the hands of Westerners. Before the Cold War, Britain and France dominated the Middle East (such as mandate rule, colonial rule, and etc.). Under the bipolar structure of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for hegemony in the Middle East. After the Cold War, the United States became a superpower in the Middle East.
In today’s Middle East pattern, on the one hand, foreign powers still play a significant role in shaping the pattern of the Middle East, but the desire of Western powers to intervene is significantly less than before. At present, no country, not even the United States, can control the Middle East. On the other hand, the status of regional powers has become prominent. For a hundred years, regional countries have only been pawns in the grand chessboard in the Middle East, but now they have become chess players on the board.
The reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is undoubtedly a heavy blow to the US control of the Middle East. As the hegemon in the world, the United States is the least willing to see reconciliation in the Middle East. Once peace is achieved in the Middle East, the United States will lose the leverage to check and balance the Gulf oil countries, and lose the bargaining chip of using the “Iran’s threat” to create security topics to force the Gulf oil countries to buy a large number of US weapons and US bonds. Besides, if the security pressure on Middle Eastern oil countries disappears, the reason for the US military presence in the Middle East will be lost. In addition, Israel’s security, one of the important pillars of US Middle East policy, will be weakened.
The loss of the United States in the Middle East means the decline of its hegemony, so the game of reconciliation in the Middle East will intensify, but China has no intention of filling the power vacuum left by the strategic contraction of the United States in the Middle East. Although China’s increased attention on Middle East affairs has nothing to do with the United States, in terms of results, the US strategic eastward shift has reduced its investment in the Middle East, and China’s increased influence in the Middle East will also force the US eastward shift strategy to retreat to the Middle East, reducing pressure on China in the Asia Pacific game.
The Global Security Initiative is an effective solution proposed by China to address global security governance
At present, complex and sensitive security issues have profoundly affected the global development process, which is mainly manifested in two aspects: on the one hand, traditional security issues are still prominent, and regional hotspot issues such as the North Korean nuclear issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and so on are keep emerging one after another. The recent Russia-Ukraine conflict has further exacerbated the concerns of the international community; On the other hand, the threats posed by non-traditional security issues such as climate change, cybersecurity, and biological security have increased significantly. These security challenges are constantly threatening the global development environment, and it is urgent and imperative to build a more systematic global security governance system. Against this background, China put forward the Global Security Initiatives according to the time and situation, contributed Chinese solutions to global governance, and provided important ideological and operational guidance for solving the important problems and challenges of global security governance.
China has always advocated the concept of “developmental peace”, where development is the foundation of security, and security is the condition for development. For most developing countries, development is the greatest security and the overall key to solving regional security issues. China’s pursuit of multi-polarization and a community with a shared future for mankind must first achieve regional peace and stability, and this will pave the way for economic development.
For a long time, security and development have been the two major challenges plaguing Middle Eastern countries. Without a stable environment, economic development cannot be guaranteed. China’s matchmaking between Saudi Arabia and Iran demonstrates China’s influence and international credibility, which can create favorable conditions for the next step of development. From the perspective of Asian development, the energy belt of Gulf countries is related to economic development of the entire Asia Pacific and even the world. In this sense, reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is conducive to the promotion of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, the Global Civilization Initiative and the Belt and Road Initiative.
From a larger perspective, the world since 1500 has been dominated by the West, and the “offshore balancing strategy” of Britain and the United States for nearly 500 years is to create a divided world, plunge the Eurasia into war, and become conflicting groups, in order to maintain their hegemony. However, what China hopes is to integrate a peaceful and prosperous Eurasian continent through the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the idea of “a community of shared future for mankind”, so that all countries, especially developing countries, have the right of development, truly build equality and respect among countries, and establish an international order in which no hegemon dominates.
In this sense, whether China is willing or not, at a time when the United States increasingly regards China as a strategic rival, China has to promote a truly equal international order that is different from the United States. Perhaps the International Mediation Court established by China on February 16, 2023 was a good start. In the Middle East, which has always been known as a powder keg, once the seeds of peace take root and sprout in people’s hearts, the sower will be firmly remembered.
* Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Turkish Studies at Shanghai University