In an unexpected turn of events, China’s, Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s foreign ministers, after meeting in Beijing for nearly a week in secret talks, announced on 10 March that a China-brokered deal would re-establish diplomatic ties between the longtime Middle East rivals.
The first major point of contention between the two Middle Eastern powers came during the Arab Spring; but two years later, they came close to an all-out conflict when a Saudi Shiite was executed alongside 47 others for terrorism offences, which resulted in the protests that ruptured relations between both Eastern giants. However, both countries have been working towards rapprochement since late 2020.
China’s foray into the Middle East is economic and political: Saudi Arabia is China’s main crude oil supplier, and fostering relations will help China grow its influence and supplant the United States (US) as the world’s leading power. China’s ability to pull off this diplomatic coup has been made easier by America’s failure to do the same, coupled with their near-implacable support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. As such, the US has not been an honest arbiter of the Middle East’s geopolitical fissures.
China’s quest for southern solidarity has brought it into alignment with the Global South, which is largely made up of poorer countries that are reliant on international economic, trade, and political systems built and dominated by the Global North members. And China is showing these countries that it is better positioned to help them achieve independence in the global community.
On March 10, the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s press release on the deal mentioned that both countries have agreed to restore diplomatic relations and re-open embassies, which means that security challenges will now be mitigated through direct communication. Meanwhile, China would have to expend its resources and be a security guarantor if historical mistrust between both protagonists leads to proxy wars.
The two Eastern powers have provided a pattern for smaller powers to follow. And despite the verbal commitment of Global South countries to a non-aligned posture, they are starting to look East for alternatives to the American-led order. One thing is clear—for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Eastern alternative is no longer a poisoned chalice but a proposition many Heads of State will take up.
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