China's growing influence in Mideast leaves US worried
The fact that representatives of Saudi Arabia and Iran sat together for five days in early March was a sensation in itself. And the fact that these archrivals on the Persian Gulf even agreed to resume diplomatic relations on March 10 caused quite a stir.
But the fact that the two hostile neighbors shook hands in Beijing, of all places, was perhaps the biggest surprise about the new rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been hostile to each other since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. For more than a decade, they have supported opposing parties in conflicts in the region, waging proxy wars in countries like Yemen. They have not maintained diplomatic relations for seven years. Now, successful mediation on one of the Middle East's most dangerous fault lines has added a new quality to China's role in the region.
China: Relations with all sides
The US, long the undisputed shaping power in the Gulf, has failed to bridge the gap between the two powers, argues Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank. But that is hardly surprising, given that Washington does not maintain any relations with Tehran and has "very little constructive leverage to try and shape a deal here."
"The fundamental reality here is that China was able to step in because they had the relationship and the leverage with all sides to try and push this forward," Barnes-Dacey said.
That influence is based mainly on economics: China is by far the most important trading partner for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, as former US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman explained. In other parts of the Middle East, too, trade with China is three times greater than trade with the United States, he says. "We cannot ignore China's importance to this region," Feltman argued.
Sebastian Sons, of Bonn-based Middle East think tank CARPO, said that China is increasingly perceived in the Gulf not only as an economic partner, but also as a political and even security partner. Speaking on the phone from Qatar, Sons said he saw the Beijing agreement as a clear upgrade for China.
At the same time, he noted, "Basically, it has to be said that the US, and Europe as well, have lost a great deal of trust in the region over the last few years and have therefore hardly been perceived as a serious deal broker or mediator."
Little enthusiasm in Washington
US policymakers have received Beijing's success in mediation with predictably muted enthusiasm. "Seeing the Chinese role here will not warm any hearts in Washington," Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a tweet summarizing the mood.
The US government has cautiously welcomed the agreement, while seeking to downplay China's mediating role. National Security Council Communications Director John Kirby packed a lot of caveats into his initial reaction to the Beijing deal: "If this deal can be sustained — regardless of what the interest was or who sat down at the table — if it can be sustained, and the war in Yemen can end, and Saudi Arabia doesn't have to continually try to defend itself against attacks from the Houthis, who are funded and supported by Iran, in the end we welcome that," he said in a press briefing earlier this month.
Great power rivalry in the background
Feltman, who has mediated numerous conflicts for the United Nations, also pointed out that reestablishing diplomatic relations does not mean an end to the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But the former US diplomat also sees China's mediation in the context of the systemic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. And there he perceives a clear shift in circumstances that US policy must adjust to.
The US would have to accept that countries like Saudi Arabia, with which the US has had close relations for 75 years, would also hedge their bets in the future. "They're going to be resisting the attempt to be in one camp or the other," Feltman told DW. "We see this with Russia's war in Ukraine. And we see it with the US-Chinese rivalry that there are many countries with which the US has had close relations and still has close relations, but where we cannot expect that those countries are going to side with us in a rivalry with China."
Middle East expert Dina Esfandiary, from the Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group, is also certain that the countries in the Gulf are repositioning themselves in view of the current political climate. That could have unpleasant consequences for Washington: "The smaller countries are going to play the big powers off against each other in order to extract maximum benefit from their relationship. So it's going to leave Washington in quite an uncomfortable position."
Beijing's image cultivation
The extent to which the region's states are committed to multipolarity was made clear at the beginning of December, when China's head of state, Xi Jinping, was welcomed at the first ever Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh. That meeting dispelled the impression that China was only interested in doing business in the Gulf. After all, a significant part of China's energy supply depends on stable conditions in the Gulf region.
Esfandiary, however, sees another motive for Beijing's increased involvement: "China is trying to present itself as an alternative model, as a partner, as a mediator, one that's different to the Western model."
The Saudi-Iranian handshake also fits into a wider diplomatic offensive by China aimed at portraying itself as a peacemaking force for reconciliation.
Just days after the deal, Xi Jinping announced a "Global Civilization Initiative." This came a year after the "Global Security Initiative" Xi proclaimed in the spring of 2022, and the "Global Development Initiative" of 2021 – all vaguely formulated papers with few concrete commitments.
In the West, these initiatives were only barely noticed, but in the Global South, they served to polish Beijing's image and score points in the geopolitical competition.
This article was originally written in German.