The Middle East has long been a region fraught with conflicts and rivalries, with the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry being one of the most significant. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Saudi Arabia has seen Iran as its most significant adversary in the Gulf’s quest for domination. Furthermore, the Saudis believe that Iran has significantly enhanced its influence in the area since 2011, at the price of Saudi stability.
This rivalry is rooted in historical, political, and religious differences, and has manifested in proxy wars, competition for regional influence, and sectarian tensions. In recent years, their relationship has further deteriorated due to the United States’ involvement in the region and the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran.
As a result, there has been a growing interest in finding alternative strategies to resolve the conflicts in the region, with China emerging as a potential peace broker. The potential role of China in mediating the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry and the implications of these negotiations for the United States are important for the Middle East.1
China’s increasing influence in the Middle East
China has long maintained a low-profile approach to the Middle East, primarily focusing on maintaining good relations with all regional actors to secure its energy interests. However, over the past decade, China’s involvement in the region has increased significantly, driven by its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its growing global influence. As a result, China has been able to develop strong ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, making it a potential mediator in their conflict.
In recent years, China has significantly expanded its economic ties with Iran. The BRI, aimed at enhancing connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, has provided Iran with much-needed infrastructure investments and has been a crucial lifeline for the Iranian economy in the face of US sanctions. Additionally, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic partnership in 2021, highlighting their long-term commitment to deepening bilateral relations.
Similarly, China has cultivated strong ties with Saudi Arabia, which is its largest trading partner in the Middle East and a crucial source of energy imports. China has also been investing heavily in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a plan aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and reducing its reliance on oil revenue. This economic interdependence between China and Saudi Arabia provides a strong foundation for a potential Chinese role in mediating the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry.2
China as a peace broker
China’s growing influence in the Middle East and its strong ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia put it in a unique position to mediate their conflict. As an emerging global power, China has the necessary leverage to facilitate dialogue between the two rivals and encourage them to seek peaceful solutions to their disputes.
Additionally, China’s Non-interventionist foreign policy and its willingness to engage with all regional actors make it a more acceptable mediator to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, who view the US as a biased actor in the region and with Iran China growing ties and calling USA a big bully.
The agreement signed by Riyadh and Tehran last week in Beijing just confirms China’s rising importance as a crucial trade and now diplomatic partner in the Gulf.3
Moreover, China has a vested interest in promoting regional stability, as instability in the Middle East could undermine its economic interests and the success of the BRI. By acting as a peace broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China could enhance its image as a responsible global power and gain further influence in the region.4
Implications for the United States
China’s potential role as a mediator in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry raises several implications for the United States. Firstly, it could diminish the US’s influence in the Middle East, as regional actors may increasingly turn to China to resolve their disputes instead of relying on the US. This could undermine the United States’ long-standing alliances in the region and weaken its strategic position. After the Afghanistan failure of USA and escaping in the midst of conflict the US credibility and trust is a hard candy to chew.
Secondly, successful Chinese mediation could potentially lead to a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which could, in turn, strengthen their collective bargaining power in the Global energy market. This could challenge the US’s energy interests in the region and have implications for global energy prices.
Lastly, a more stable Middle East, facilitated by Chinese mediation, could lead to a reduction in the US’s military presence in the region. This could free up resources for the United States to focus on other strategic priorities, such as addressing the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific especially in the region of Indo-Pacific and critical Choke Points.5
In light of the ongoing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the limitations of the US’s role in the region, China’s emergence as a potential peace broker presents a viable alternative for promoting regional stability. China’s growing influence in the Middle East and its strong ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia provide a solid foundation for mediation efforts.
However, the success of China’s mediation efforts remains uncertain, as the deep-seated historical, political, and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia may prove difficult to overcome.
Nevertheless, the prospect of China as a peace broker in the region raises significant implications for the United States, which must carefully consider its strategic priorities and adapt to the changing dynamics in the Middle East.
- The Saudi-Iranian Conflict | DGAP. “The Saudi-Iranian Conflict | DGAP,” January 27, 2016. https://dgap.org/en/research/publications/saudi-iranian-conflict.
- Alqahtani, Khaled Mohammed. “Does Saudi Arabia Benefit From China’s Belt and Road Initiative? | Alqahtani | Journal of Management and Strategy.” Does Saudi Arabia Benefit From China’s Belt and Road Initiative? | Alqahtani | Journal of Management and Strategy, December 12, 2019. https://doi.org/10.5430/jms.v11n1p1.
- Harb, Ali. “Iran-Saudi Arabia Deal Not a Setback for US, Analysts Say.” Iran-Saudi Arabia deal not a setback for US, analysts say | Politics News | Al Jazeera, March 16, 202316. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/16/iran-saudi-arabia-deal-not-a-setback-for-us-analysts-say.
- Foreign Affairs. “A New Order in the Middle East?,” March 22, 2023. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east-relations.