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Geopolitical Shifts in the Middle East

Image credit: Daily Sabah
Geopolitical Shifts in the Middle East

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran on March 10 agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and an old security agreement with each other in a landmark deal brokered by China. The understanding between the two states took place in Beijing after four days of talks between the most senior diplomat of China, Iran’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Advisor. China believes that it has played its part as a reliable mediator while at the same time showing its willingness to play a constructive role in international disputes. Previously in 2021, Iraq had also tried to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but those efforts fell through with the general election in Iraq that same year. Similarly, other talks also took place in Oman, which did not lead to any major development.

The ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, has invited the President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi to visit the Saudi capital Riyadh. This invitation is welcomed by the Iranian government, and the President of Iran has extended a similar invitation to King Salman for him to visit Tehran. It has also been recently announced that the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia would meet during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan. This meeting will start the implementation of the deal struck between the two countries. This came to fruition when on April 6, the Foreign Minister of the two countries met in Beijing, their first such meeting in seven years, in which, according to the reports, the two discussed the steps being taken to restore ties.

The deal can lead to numerous upsides. Primarily, it could lead to a credible regional framework for bringing Iran into the fold with respect to its nuclear programme. There could also be a breakthrough in the eight-year-long conflict in Yemen, where both countries are involved either directly or indirectly. Meaningful dialogue between Saudi and Iran can lead to de-escalation in Yemen and maybe even an end to hostilities.

These developments in the last few months show that there is a major shift in the Middle East. The region’s traditional security guarantor, the US, is being sidelined, with the vacated space being filled by China, to an extent.

The deal signals China’s increasing influence in the Middle East, as many of the states in the region view China as a rather neutral actor. It can be chalked up to China’s policy of not making alliances or blocs, and non-interference in the internal matter of other states. China has also increased its presence with respect to security in the region. The state has increasingly been undertaking anti-piracy missions in the region as well as having a naval base in Djibouti. The perception of being a neutral actor works in China’s favour because both Saudi Arabia and Iran are important to China and vice versa. The former is China’s largest energy supplier, while the latter is a market where Beijing is now heavily invested and plans to invest $400 billion in a span of 25 years.

The US has somewhat downplayed the whole development, with administration officials stating that this was a one-off thing and was in China’s interest economically to broker some kind of a deal. They have also gone ahead and said that this deal would not lead to any long-term alliances. This attitude of the US administration shows that it is doing its best to devalue the importance that China is now enjoying in the Middle East. At the same time, the US is forced to sit on the sidelines and finds itself increasingly at odds with Saudi Arabia, its major ally in the region. This was best seen when in October last year, the OPEC+ countries which are led by Saudi, undertook a cut in oil production, driving up its price.

Just a few days after the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former’s cabinet approved a decision for it to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner, with the aim to eventually become a full partner. The latter had signed the documents for full membership last year. This also shows Saudi willingness to cooperate with both China and Russia in a much more formal manner, as it and other Gulf countries believe that the main security guarantor of the region, the US, is currently focused elsewhere. Around the same time as the SCO decision, Saudi Aramco announced it was undertaking multi-billion-dollar investments in China. It has acquired a 10% stake in a private petrochemical company for $3.6 billion and also agreed to provide two Chinese companies with 690,000 barrels of oil per day.

Likewise, geopolitical shifts are taking place in the rest of the region as well. The Arab world’s isolation of Syria is also slowly declining. In March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was received by the UAE’s President, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The leaders are said to have discussed means of increasing cooperation to accelerate stability and progress in Syria. Earlier in February, Assad also visited Oman, where he discussed with Sultan Haithan bin Tareq different regional issues and bilateral ties. The Saudi government is also in with the Assad regime to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies for the first time since the start of the Syrian Civil War. They also are in the process of inviting Syria to the Arab League summit in May. Syria was pushed out of the Arab League when Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states cut ties with the country following the start of the civil war. These visits are the first such visits Assad has made to any Gulf state in around a decade and show signs of rapprochement between Syria and other Arab states. This push has only increased after the devastating earthquake in February.

Other states in the region are also making efforts to move past old disputes in order to work together for their and the region’s betterment. Turkey has recently made efforts to mend its ties with Syria, and senior defence and security officials of both countries met in Moscow to begin talks in December 2022. There is now hope that both states will set aside their differences and work together to combat terror organisations in Syria. Turkey has in the past supported rebel groups against the Assad regime, but the recent efforts show a willingness to change. Turkey is also hoping to re-establish diplomatic ties with Egypt, and the first meeting between the countries’ Foreign Ministers in a decade, took place last month in Cairo. The Turkish Foreign Minister also stated that the Presidents of the two countries would meet after the elections in Turkey.

These developments in the last few months show that there is a major shift in the Middle East. The region’s traditional security guarantor, the US, is being sidelined, with the vacated space being filled by China, to an extent, as Beijing needs peace in the region from where it gets most of its energy supplies. While in other instances, the states have taken the initiative themselves in order to bring peace to the region.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Associate at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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