Updated: Sep 13
By Francesco Lasorella
In March 2023 in Beijing, Iranian and Saudi officials agreed to restore diplomatic relations. Facilitated by China, the unexpected turn in the relations between the two Middle Eastern countries marks a path for a more peaceful geopolitical scenario in the region. Meanwhile, at the expense of the West, Xi Jinping strengthens China’s reputation as a superpower and leader of a multipolar world.
© China Daily
Iranian-Saudi Relations: a History Rugged By Alliances, Religion, and the US
Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two largest countries in the Middle East. From a geopolitical point of view, the territory’s immense availability of fossil fuels and its 'bridging' geographical position - among the world’s most important hubs for international trade - make it strategically important.
The world’s first superpower - the US - has carried out several wars in the Middle East to secure world and local hegemony. An overview of the modern US interventions is a fundamental focus to comprehend the region’s dynamics better.
In the concluding chapter of a 1300 pages report, published by the US Army regarding the American invasion of Iraq, the authors agree that: “at the time of this project’s completion in 2018, an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor”.
The striking - and oddly realistic - conclusion is the inevitable result of the American strategy to fight Al Qaeda.
In 2006, favoured by the presidency of George W. Bush, Nouri Al Maliki became the President of Iraq. The US aimed to instil combat against Al Qaeda in the roots of the country, increasing the pressure on the sectarian conflict between Shiite Muslims - the new Iraqi government - and Sunni Muslims - Al Qaeda.
However, the strategy was revealed to be a double-edged sword. If, on the one hand, the Iraqi government committed to the fight against Al Qaeda, on the contrary, it would become closer to its fellow Shiite neighbour: Iran.
Conscious of their mistakes, the US redirected Middle Eastern foreign policy. In the words of the then-Secretary of State Rice: “It is time for a new strategic alignment in the Middle East”.
As a result, Israel and the Sunni states - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates - were framed as the counterbalancing weight to isolate the Shiite alliance - Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but also insurgents like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Military clashes came when Saudi Arabia and Iran confronted each other, trying to gain more influence and geopolitical power over the region: Lebanon was the friction point.
Iran supported Syrian troops in the region together with Hezbollah. On the other side, Israel, the US and its Western allies, and Saudi Arabia called for new elections and the withdrawal of Syrian forces.
A similar scenario occurred in the Palestinian region, where Washington and Riyadh supported the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, and Tehran backed Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Finally, in Yemen, the backyard of the Arab kingdom, Iran has always supported the local Houthi movement, arci-enemies of Riyadh.
The Reconciliation Blessed By Beijing
The US strategy - to divide the Middle East into two blocks - is seen as an opportunity for Beijing to help restore peace, and automatically gain the status of international arbiter - a reference point that many of those seek in a strong ally who supports their initiatives, often divergent from the West’s schemes.
The Chinese mediation confirms the great interest of the 'Red Dragon' in the Middle East as a key partner for its geopolitical ambitions, besides the thirst for the Arabs’ almost unlimited energy offer.
Last December, Xi Jinping flew to Riyadh where he was welcomed in full regalia; some say even better compared to when Biden visited in July. Beijing and Riyadh both highlighted their satisfaction with the agreements made during the visit.
What was once all about oil, expanded to strategic cooperation involving 34 companies for information technology, genetics, mining, hydrogen energy, manufacturing and logistical infrastructure.
In particular, the forever banned by the US, Huawei, signed a memorandum for helping in the construction of a Saudi national data centre. The contracts are estimated to be worth around 30 billion dollars (27.4 billion euros), but, it does not end here.
The commitment extends to the decision of the Saudi Ministry of Education to start teaching Chinese language and literature as an option in high schools.
At the time, the visit to the Saudis was not really appreciated by the Iranian government. However, in February, all was fixed when Iranian President Raisi had an institutional stopover in Beijing.
Iran and China have a long history of strategic cooperation. Tehran is one of the few allies with whom China has military drills; the latest in the Gulf of Oman, alongside the presence of Russia.
What happened in the Chinese capital, on 9 March, was an unexpected turn in the history of the Middle East. Of course, time will tell if the reconciliation will be effective. For now, the symbolic agreement opens the possibility of talking through diplomacy and no longer only with bombs.
The Saudi Minister of Finance has already advanced the proposal of directing “very quick” investments into Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranians have halted the shipments of weapons to Houthis in Yemen.
The new balance, therefore, seems to be on a good path for its consolidation, it will be interesting witnessing the rest of the world adapt to it.
The Middle East Can Keep on Without the Americans
Rumours regarding a possible reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran were already in the air in 2020. On the same day he was killed, Iranian General Soleimani was supposed to meet with the Iraqi Prime Minister and deliver him a letter for the Saudis, aiming for a re-establishment of diplomatic contacts.
The state-associated Iranian media company, PressTV, accused the Trump administration of killing the general with the only purpose of preventing peace in the Islamic region. Of course, these are only allegations from the Iranian regime; nobody, apart from US military officials, could confirm that. The only certainty is that since the Iranian Revolution, there has been bad blood between the two countries.
On the Saudi side, governments have always been very careful in distancing themselves from their historic allies. During his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden made strong statements against the Saudis: he vowed to make Saudi Arabia "pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are". The anger originated from the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed by the Saudi secret services in Ankara in 2018.
Consequently, during the minor oil crisis followed by the escalation of the war in Ukraine, Biden's results from his visit to Saudi Arabia were not as effective as he hoped. At the same time, OPEC agreed to almost insignificantly increase the output of oil production.
Finally, just for the record, it is now the second time ever that a show on Saudi national tv (not exactly the champions of free speech) mocks the president of the United States.
China aims to take over the role of world supervisor so far played by the Americans and be among the leaders of the multipolar world. The BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are shaping an alternative world to the Western one.
The Middle East is a useful ally, given its resources and geographic position, and it also ‘happens’ to share the anti-Western sentiment fueling China and Co.
Saudi Arabia, together with other countries in the region might be in the middle of the ‘switching-side’ transition. For example, just recently, Syria was readmitted into the Arab League, despite strong opposition from Washington.
In conclusion, the Chinese Dragon is wisely implementing its strategy to oust the American hegemony without the use of force, following the letter of the immortal words of Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.
Sources: Al Arabia, Forbes, New York Times, US Army War College, Wall Street Journal
Written by Francesco Lasorella