March 15, 2023
NEW DELHI – The withdrawal of one power from a region opens doors for the entry of another. During his visit to Riyadh, in July 2022, President Biden claimed he raised the ‘execution’ of Jamal Khashoggi with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi Foreign Minister stated that MBS countered by questioning the death of PalestinianAmerican journalist Shireen Akleh by Israeli soldiers and abuse by US soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib detention centre. During his campaign Biden had promised a hard stance against MBS. He had mentioned, “We were going to, in fact, make them (Saudi Arabia) pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Biden’s intentions were evident.
A few months later, the Saudi-led OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) rejected a US request to delay its oil production cuts. While the US claimed it was to protect the global economy with sanctions imposed on Russia, the reality was it would impact US midterm elections. Biden subsequently warned ‘there will be consequences’ for US-Saudi relations in the future. Evidently, the US was losing ground in West Asia. Riyadh had refused US demands to keep Beijing and Moscow at bay.
As US-Saudi relations froze, China waded in. China was always lurking in the background despite procuring most of its oil from the region and being their largest trading partner. With US influence receding, Chinese presence bounced back as gulf countries joined its Belt and Road Initiative. No West Asian nation, as also Riyadh monitored OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), has ever criticized China for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, while commenting on Kashmir and Palestine.
Iran, post US sanctions, initially turned towards China, and is now firmly in the Russian camp, such that it is supplying drones to Moscow and there are reports of it setting up a drone manufacturing facility in Russia. Despite efforts, Beijing-Tehran relations have not always been smooth sailing. Statements emanating from President Xi Jinping’s high profile visit to Riyadh last year caused discomfort in Tehran.
The bilateral statement at the end of the Riyadh visit mentioned, “(China and Saudi Arabia) agreed on the need to strengthen joint cooperation to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” It also ‘called on Iran to cooperate’ with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as also ‘(maintain) respect for principles of good-neighbourliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.’ A subsequent joint statement issued after Xi’s meeting with the Gulf Council supported peaceful resolution of disputed islands between Iran and the Gulf countries. Iran rejected these comments.
China engagement with the region grew steadily. In a surprise move, it hosted Iranian and Saudi Arabian diplomats in Beijing, aiming to mend fences. The agreement, reached after four days of negotiations, mentioned that the two nations have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties within the next two months. It is possible that the subject was pushed by Xi during his December visit to Riyadh and endorsed during the recent visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing.
It brought peace between the two major antagonists of the region after a gap of seven years. Riyadh had accused Tehran of inciting protests in Bahrain, supporting Damascus and funding Houthi rebels which targeted Saudi oil facilities. Iran accused Saudi of being responsible for the deaths of over 400 Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and backing the US in pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran Nuclear deal. Diplomatic ties collapsed after Iranian protestors stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran post the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Riyadh.
This agreement will have regional repercussions. Israel, which claims that it will not impact its efforts at improving ties with Riyadh could find itself alone in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Its intent at creating an anti-Iranian block in West Asia will suffer a setback. Iran and Israel remain enemies and Tel Aviv has vowed to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. IAEA believes Iran has enriched Uranium to 84 per cent, while Tehran claims 60 per cent. Both nations have accused the other for being behind attacks on each other’s assets.
The agreement could lead to normalization of Iran’s ties with other Gulf States, possibly making the I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and US) grouping redundant. I2U2 was intended to counter Chinese influence in the region, which will only be more pronounced in the future.
Riyadh-Tehran rivalry has dominated the gulf and been exploited by the US in isolating Iran. The agreement marks the end of Iran’s seclusion.
The US cautiously welcomed the deal. John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, in a briefing mentioned that if the deal can end the war in Yemen and Riyadh does not have to defend itself from attacks by Houthis, it would be ideal. In Yemen, Saudi and Iranian proxies have been battling each other. Kirby added, ‘It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honour their side of the deal.’ The US also claimed that it was kept in the loop by the Saudis.
Why did the Chinese succeed? The US distancing itself from the region as also refusing to consider security guarantees for Riyadh against Iranian nuclear development opened doors for China. This was evident in the Xi-MBS joint statement. These guarantees were possibly a condition for normalizing Riyadh-Israel ties. Gulf nations also believe that US concentration is towards Ukraine and countering China, ignoring their interests.
China is now a geopolitical power in the region, after all it imports oil from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beijing drove its message home when its top diplomat, Wang Yi, hinting at the US ignoring the region, mentioned, ‘The world is not limited to the Ukraine issue.’ For the US, China’s success is a stark reminder that pulling out of any region will open doors for adversaries to fill the vacuum.
This agreement is possibly a new dawn for West Asia with long hard days ahead. Will national leaderships be able to fulfil what has been accepted remains to be seen? Simultaneously, the arrival of China as a dominant power in West Asia has been announced.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)