Illustration: Craig Stephens
Mohammed Sinan Siyech
Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Iran-Saudi accord shows China’s growing Middle East influence via diplomacy, trade and security

  • China has slowly increased its presence in the region in the past two decades through rising trade, foreign aid, infrastructure projects and more
  • The Iran-Saudi peace deal builds more credibility in the Middle East for China and will aid its efforts to strengthen ties in the region
Saudi Arabia and Iran have announced they will re-establish full diplomatic relations and reopen embassies seven years after ties were severed. With China brokering the deal, after hosting and sponsoring the talks, it is pertinent to examine Beijing’s role in the breakthrough and what it says about China’s position in the Middle East.

While the Middle East has been roiled by conflicts and skirmishes, the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been one of the overarching rivalries in the region, given their support for various groups opposed to each other.

Historically speaking, Iran and Saudi Arabia were allied until the Iranian revolution in 1979, when new ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for the teachings and experiences of the revolution to be exported to all Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia. Since then, relations have progressively deteriorated.

Over the past decade, the two nations’ role in funding and arming opposing factions of the Yemeni civil war worsened relations significantly. Ties hit rock bottom after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy following Riyadh’s execution of a Shia cleric. As a result, both nations shut their respective embassies.

In the past year or so, peace talks have taken place in Iraq and Oman, whose leaders have sought to persuade the rivals to put aside their animosity. The latest announcement is therefore a feather in the cap for Beijing’s engagement in the Middle East.

Iran-Saudi ties: China-brokered ‘win-win’ deal could bring Yemen war to a close

China has slowly increased its presence in the region in the past two decades, with trade hitting more than US$300 billion. Major planks include its oil imports – vital, given its massive energy requirements – the export of goods to the region and establishing its Belt and Road Initiative. It has provided aid to Syria following the devastating earthquake in February, helped build transport infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and built Egypt’s new administrative capital, among other projects.
China has also taken advantage of the opportunity created by the United States’ decreasing presence in the region, amid conflict fatigue in Washington, and its desire to focus on strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region. This US pivot away from the Middle East increased under the presidency of Donald Trump, providing China with more opportunities.

Middle East nations also like the fact that, unlike the US, China does not generally monitor human rights and makes no demands to improve living conditions domestically. This stance works well for many nations in the region, particularly those with more authoritarian rulers and documented human rights violations.

Notably, China has not acted as major security provider in the region, often focusing on low-hanging fruit such as anti-piracy efforts, peacekeeping and conflict mediation where other actors are also involved, such as in Afghanistan. This has been one area where Beijing was happy for the US to take charge, with the latter criticising China for acting as a “free rider” while benefiting from Washington’s security blanket in the region without doing its part to reduce conflict.


China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties

China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties
However, this has gradually changed over the past decade. China is starting to provide more defence technology in the region, engage in training Arab officials and is even working towards building a new security architecture.

The last aspect was highlighted during the Middle East Security Forum held in Beijing last September. China announced some plans for the region, notably promoting a new common security architecture that it said would also adhere to the principles of the UN charter while building regional security dialogues.

As part of these regional dialogues, China helped mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is an important development, given the intense animosity between the two nations and is likely to have spillover effects on other conflicts in the region. This could include progress towards a peaceful resolution to Yemen’s ongoing civil war.
Larger questions about Chinese involvement in the region are likely to persist. Despite the fact nations like the US have expressed concern about Iran reneging on its commitment in this negotiation, it is clear that China has flexed some serious muscle. Moreover, Beijing could look to take a similar role to discuss other conflicts, such as the Palestine-Israel issue. Whether it could succeed there is another matter.


China cements influence in Iraq with infrastructure, oil deals after US withdrawal

China cements influence in Iraq with infrastructure, oil deals after US withdrawal

Importantly, the Iran-Saudi peace deal builds more credibility in the Middle East for the Asian superpower and will aid its efforts to strengthen regional economic and security ties. This is also buttressed by the fact Beijing has already completed several infrastructure projects in the region.

Moreover, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi noted in a speech in January 2022 that there is no power vacuum in the Middle East and that the future course of events should be decided by nations in the region. Such statements giving agency to Middle East nations have helped cement China’s role as a power that adheres to its stated principle of non-interference, something that is crucial for its goals of expansion.

There may be some doubt about whether China could eventually take over from the US as security provider in the Middle East. However, it is moving to a position where it can be a far more dominant player in the region in the years to come.

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a doctoral scholar at the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh and a non-resident associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi