The Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was signed several weeks ago holds the promise of returning the Middle East to the conditions that prevailed before the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 – in other words to a time of relative calm in the region thanks to Tehran’s and Riyadh’s efforts to contain their strategic rivalry.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement, according to what has been made public about it, provides for the resumption of bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries within two months and a commitment to the principles of respect for national sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of others. It also calls for the revival of the security cooperation agreement that the two countries signed in 2001 and their agreement of 1998 that focused on broader cooperation, including in the economy, trade, investment, science and technology, culture, and youth and sports.
The new agreement is thus less about taking the bilateral relationship forward than about resetting it to where it stood just over a decade ago. At the time there were diplomatic relations and economic and security cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For example, the then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit meeting of 2007 in which the participants discussed various visions for coordination between the GCC countries and Iran in order to achieve regional security. There were also understandings on freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, a matter of concern for all countries overlooking the Gulf.
Despite the strategic competition between Riyadh and Tehran over influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region at the time, they were able to keep their relations on an even keel and even explore ways to share influence in those countries.
The readiness of both sides to come to terms again today is perhaps best explained by their realisation that the lack of dialogue between them has cost them dearly. A salient example of this is the disruption and threat to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz during the past three years that has been detrimental to many countries in the region.
But the Chinese-brokered agreement also speaks of something new. It reflects a remarkable change in the security culture that underpins Saudi foreign policy and a shift away from a thinking informed by perceptions of threats to a thinking shaped by potential opportunities.
Several official statements have signalled this shift. For example, in the Jeddah Summit meeting of July 2022 Saudi Arabia said that it would prefer to engage in dialogue and cooperation with Iran instead of seeing it as an enemy and forming military alliances against it. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has also said on several occasions that he regards Iran as a potential friend that his country can deal with and that he would prefer negotiating with it instead of confrontation.
But even if the recent Saudi-Iranian agreement cannot be said to bring anything really new to the relations between the two countries, it could nevertheless ultimately reshape relations in the wider Middle East. It could enhance Saudi Arabia’s role as an agent of change in the patterns of regional interplay towards Iran and bolster Riyadh’s status and legitimacy as a major regional power. For years, this regional interplay has generally worked to isolate Tehran politically and strategically. Following the agreement, we can expect other regional powers, such as Egypt, to reactivate their relations with Iran after a long freeze.
Another ramification of the agreement pertains to Washington’s policies towards the region. Under the administration of former US president Barack Obama, the US shifted to a “backseat driver” approach that encouraged regional powers to resolve their problems on their own rather than waiting for Washington to step in.
Saudi Arabia has now acted on this principle and, in response, US National Security Spokesperson John Kirby has said that Washington is following developments regarding the Saudi-Iranian agreement through its strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and that it has no objection to the Chinese role as long as it contributes to achieving stability in the region.
A third ramification of the agreement concerns the evolution of China’s role in the Middle East. Its success in brokering the agreement between these two major countries is a landmark in the development of a political dimension to this role and one that draws on the economic influence that Beijing has built up in the region over the course of many years.
China’s interest in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not new. It began with the international negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme in 2003. China was instrumental in the process that eventually culminated in the nuclear agreement of 2015. Throughout that period, Chinese diplomats were keen to discuss the reasons for the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the origins of the disputes between them, and the potential for dialogue.
Looking ahead, we can now expect further developments in China’s new political role in the region, especially as the Saudi-Iranian agreement states that the three parties, Riyadh, Tehran and Beijing, “will exert all possible efforts to promote regional and international peace and security”.
The question now is which regional conflict will China try to resolve next by encouraging dialogue, sponsoring negotiations, or brokering a diplomatic settlement.
The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly