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New Model of Diplomacy

In mediating the landmark rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China offers an alternative security framework in the region under its Global Security Initiative

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Jun.1

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (left) shakes hands with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud (right) and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (center) during a meeting in Beijing on April 6, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

On April 6, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met in Beijing to formally declare that the two countries have resumed diplomatic relations. In a joint statement released after the highest-level meeting between the two countries in more than seven years, the two sides are continuing their dialogue on the implementation of the landmark agreement brokered by China in March.  

Three days earlier on April 3, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber announced that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had accepted Saudi Arabian King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s invitation to visit Riyadh.  

As leading Sunni and Shia Muslim powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been staunch adversaries. In 2016, the two sides severed diplomatic relations when Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia scholar Baqir An-Nimr, which triggered angry protests in Iran that ended with the Saudi embassy in Tehran being torched.  

In the deal signed along with China in Beijing on March 10, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions in each other’s countries within two months, ending their seven-year animosity.  

Although there have been sporadic negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran since 2021 with the facilitation of Iraq and Oman, the deal came as a major surprise, which many commentators described as “a slap in the face” to the administration of US President Joe Biden as it exposes Washington’s diminishing influence in the region. 

‘Common Interests’ 
In the past months, as the West was preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine war, China has been conducting high-profile diplomacy in the Middle East. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December 2022, and then in February 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid a state visit to Beijing. During both events, China quietly mediated a peace deal between the two countries.  

As surprising as it is, the deal reflects the common interests of all three countries. “For Saudi Arabia and Iran, their seven-year confrontation exhausted both countries’ resources and patience, and both want to shift their focus back to economic development,” Dong Manyuan, a senior research fellow in Middle East studies with the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) told NewsChina.  

“Saudi Arabia launched its national strategic framework, termed Vision 2030, while severe US-led economic sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, so it suits both countries’ interests to end their hostilities,” Dong added.  

As for China, it imports 40 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East and has made huge investments in the region under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is also the largest trading partner for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the last thing Beijing wants to see is two of its key partners in the region locked in a conflict that could perpetuate disfunction in the region. 

Unlike the US, which acts as a hegemonic power with a pro-Israel and anti-Iran stance, China is perceived as a neutral and non-partisan power, which allows it to play the role of a credible mediator and an honest broker, according to Chinese commentators.  

“China has established a comprehensive strategic partnership with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has both the political will and credibility to mediate the deal between the two countries,” said Wang Jin, an associate professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at Northwest University in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.  

Wang told NewsChina that in addition to its substantial BRI investments, China launched the Global Security Initiative in 2022. He added that most Middle Eastern countries would like China to play a more significant role in political security affairs. 

The Alternative 
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.” 

Wider De-escalation
Following the Saudi-Iran deal, there has been a de-escalation in the wider region. On the same day the rapprochement was announced, the Maldives, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, announced a resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran.  

A day later on March 11, the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen, where the two warring sides had fought a bloody war for years that has led to what the UN has called the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis, started talks in Switzerland aimed at implementing an UN-brokered deal on a prisoner exchange.  

On April 9, Saudi and Houthi officials began negotiations in Yemeni capital Sana’a on a permanent settlement to the conflict. Reuters reported on April 14 that the talks have made progress.  

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia and Syria have reportedly agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies. Saudi Arabia, along with the West and other Arab countries, severed ties with Syria, which has close ties with Iran, after the eruption of Syria’s bloody civil war in 2011.  

In the past months, Iran has also normalized its ties with several Gulf countries, including the UAE and Kuwait, and Bahrain could be next, according to media reports.  

These developments reflect a common aspiration among Middle Eastern countries to restore peace and stability in the region, said Fan Hongda. “Since the breakout of the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern countries have witnessed so many conflicts and wars that hardline policies have become increasingly unpopular,” Fan added.  

On April 6, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that China is ready to support Riyadh and Tehran in fostering good relations and urged the international community to help Middle Eastern countries resolve their differences. “The colonial hegemonic tactics of stirring up contradictions, creating estrangement and division should be rejected by people all over the world,” she said.  

According to researcher Dong Manyuan, with the newly released GSI, China is providing international public goods in the realm of security in the region, which has helped promote a sense of security and allowed countries to seek more strategic autonomy.  

“It has become increasingly clear for regional countries that they cannot rely on the so-called security guarantee provided by a single big power, especially when the power is a hegemonic unilateralist,” Dong added.  

With the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, cooperation between China and the Middle Eastern countries has expanded from the economic and cultural realms to political and security cooperation, and the relationship between China and the region will see a full-scale upgrade, Dong said.

Saudi Arabian Minister of State and National Security Advisor Dr. Musaad bin Mohammed AlAiban (left) talks with Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Admiral Ali Shamkhani (right) following the closing ceremony of the talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing, March 10 (Photo by Tian Yuhao)