The deal was welcomed by the United Nations and most regional countries, including Iraq, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Turkey. The US also welcomed the development but said it remained skeptical whether Iran would honor the deal.
For many Chinese analysts, the Saudi-Iran deal marks a milestone in China’s diplomacy in the Middle East. “It changed the conventional perception that China focuses only on economic cooperation in the region while trying to stay away from security issues,” said Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.
For a long time, China refrained from getting involved in regional conflicts and maintained a low profile on Middle East’s security issues. However, this has changed in recent months. As the US stepped up efforts to build an anti-China alliance among “like-minded” countries across several continents, especially after the Russia-Ukraine war, China started to adopt a more proactive approach in presenting its own vision for global security.
The Middle East is a key region where countries have resisted Washington’s pressure to isolate Russia and increasingly welcome China to play a more active role in security matters. “With China’s BRI and the Global Security Initiative, most regional countries [in the Middle East] would like China to play a more significant role in political and security issues,” Wang Jin said.
In Xi’s high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, where he held a series of summits with the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the Chinese president declared in Saudi media that relations between China and the Middle East have entered “a new era.”
In February 2023, China released a Global Security Initiative (GSI) concept paper. Centered on the notion that security can be achieved “through political dialogue and peaceful negotiation,” China presented the GSI as an alternative security framework to the US-led security order that focuses on alliance building, military deterrence and bloc-confrontation.
While many consider the GSI to be too vague and abstract to be taken seriously, Beijing’s success in brokering the Saudi-Iran rapprochement allows it to argue that the GSI can bring concrete results in promoting peace and security.
“The Beijing dialogue is a robust and successful effort to put the GSI into practice,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry during a press conference on March 14.
In an apparent reference to the US, Wang said that “tactics like ‘bolster one and bash the other’ or ‘divide and rule’ or ‘bloc confrontation’ have never been proven to work on security issues” and that China has shown “a new path to security featuring dialogue over confrontation, partnership over alliance and win-win over zero-sum.”
The comparison also gained traction among Western commentators. In an opinion piece published in the London-based news site Middle East Eye on March 17, Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, said that the Saudi-Iran agreement has shown to the regional countries and what he called the “Global Rest” that “there is another world out there with different options.”
“China has shown itself to be a great power that behaves differently from the US and offers alternatives in geopolitics,” Carnelos said. “The Global Rest would do well to take note of China’s new model of diplomacy: no ideological blinders, no Manichean characterization of the ‘other,’ no economic sanctions, no currency weaponization, no military threats – just patient, fairly brokered dialogue built upon realities on the ground and cognitive empathy.”