Change of Heart

A ‘great leap forward’ in Chinese foreign policy took place when it acted as a bridge in normalizing Iran-Saudi relations and persuaded the two arch adversaries to mend fences.

By Dr. Moonis Ahmar | May 2023

On March 10, it was like a bombshell for Israel when Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to mend fences under the mediation of China. The United States gave a cautious response to trilateral announcement, but one is sceptical about the smooth sailing of Iran-Saudi normalization process because of their age-old cleavages. Since 2016 till March 10, 2023, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were arch adversaries much to the delight of Israel and the United States when Riyadh cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran.

A ‘great leap forward’ in Chinese foreign policy took place when it acted as a bridge in normalizing Iran-Saudi relations and persuaded the two arch adversaries to mend fences. How China is following ‘soft power’ policy by focusing on trade, aid, technology, diplomacy and geo-economics instead of using hard power to deepen its influence is not difficult to gauge. The Middle East and the Persian Gulf regions pose a great challenge to China because of its heavy dependence on oil and by using multilateral diplomacy Beijing intends to secure its energy requirements from oil rich Gulf sheikhdoms in the years to come.

Saudi-Iranian conflict triggered when on January 2, 2016 Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr which led to widespread demonstration against Riyadh in several Iranian cities, leading to the termination of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The UAE followed Saudi Arabia and cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran. Change of heart in Saudi policy vis-à-vis Iran took place when Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) expressed readiness to have peace and normal relations with neighbouring countries, including Yemen. Suspicions and mistrust which overshadowed Iran-Saudi relations since the outbreak of Iranian revolution in 1979 and the surge of ‘Shia crescent’ had to be managed and controlled so as to unleash the process of normal relations with Tehran. Following Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E also restored diplomatic relations with Iran.

Several questions are raised reflecting surprise and euphoria after Iran and Saudi Arabia as a result of Chinese facilitation had an historic handshake on March 10. Will the Saudi-Iranian thaw in relations help establish peace in Yemen? What will be the durability of Saudi-Iranian mending of fences because of deep rooted historical discords between the two countries? How China will deal with American and Israeli apprehensions at Saudi-Iranian thaw? How will China’s mediation in managing Saudi-Iranian conflict provide strategic depth in the Middle East?

In a news item, “Middle East Diplomacy: The Less Bad Old Days” published in London Economist issue of March 18, it is argued that: “On March 10th, the two old foes abruptly agreed to end their seven-year rupture. The deal became the subject of excited headlines in the Middle East and America. For the former, it seemed to signal an end to a long-running and ruinous proxy war. The latter was less interested in the substance than the venue: it was signed not in a regional capital but in China, a country that had hitherto played a significant role in the Middle East’s messy diplomacy.” It is for the first time in Chinese diplomacy imbued with soft power that it influenced Iran and Saudi Arabia which for years remained in the influence of the U.S. strategic and security policies.

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