The Chinese role

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 21 Mar 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said takes stock of the Iran-Saudi agreement


When this goes to print, two weeks will have passed since Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Chinese-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic relations. During that interval, an incessant stream of commentaries, analyses and official statements has emerged from all quarters. All reflected the awareness of the agreement’s historical and strategic significance to Riyadh and Tehran, both of whom have contributed to shaping the fates of the world and this region in both ancient and modern times. There is however a concern other than historical depth: how can a step of such historical magnitude contribute to ushering in new realities in a region that has suffered decades of unfortunate developments (or so they appear as we look back on the train of revolutions, unification and secessionist drives, and civil wars)?

In the last decade, a glimmer of hope appeared, first, in efforts to shore up the stays of the nation state through a renewed focus on its past and constitutional foundations; secondly, the launch of development drives of unprecedented scale, duration and determination to ensure sustainability; and, thirdly, the desire to embrace the modern era in all its developmental, civilisational and technological dimensions, to catch up with a world that is changing every day, and to set sights on horizons previously unknown to humankind. This reformist drive among Arab countries fed up with lagging behind could not overlook the need for a “new regionalism” to transcend and overcome futile ideologies and rivalries. This new regionalism was born in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit that concluded with the AlUla Declaration, which aimed to ease tensions and restore calm in the region. The declaration set in motion direct talks and negotiations between adversaries over various bones of contention and paths to the restoration of relations on the basis of permanent mutual interests, including the need for peaceful dispute management mechanisms. It was no coincidence that AlUla was chosen as the venue for the summit. It stood for one of the burgeoning fruits of the Saudi reform drive, a blooming sustainable development project in northwestern Saudi Arabia at the intersection with the Levant and the Mediterranean, and with a view across the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to Sinai, the Suez Canal and mainland Egypt. 

The developments that followed the AlUla Declaration of 5 January 2021 are well-known. They are evidenced by the disappearance of news of hostile alliances and the appearance of news of meetings and talks, some of which discussed previous regional agreements while others explored new roads and bridges of communication and understanding. One of the results was Saudi-Iranian negotiations fostered and supported by Iraq which, itself, is feeling its way forward to reform and an end to a bloody era of its history. Oman, too, was well positioned to mediate, in light of its record of diplomacy and its position at the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula between the young UAE and revolutionary Iran to one side, and Yemen and the Indian Ocean to the other,

  It is commonly believed that China arrived at the negotiating scene to score an agreement   where others had failed after two years of strenuous mediating efforts that went nowhere. This is inaccurate. The fact is that even if negotiation rounds do not succeed, they always achieve some progress. At the very least, they set an agenda of the issues under dispute, clarify the views of both sides and, more importantly, define what each side perceives as its uncompromisable national interests and principles, beyond which everything else is open to negotiation. It was at this critical point that China stepped in to work its magic against the frenzied backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the hope offered by the Chinese peace initiative, the only such initiative on the global table. 

A few months ago, during summits in Riyadh, it became clear that China and Saudi Arabia had forged a political concord anchored in a realm of mutual strategic interests based on Saudi oil and Chinese participation and investment in the largest reform process in the modern history of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran’s relations with China were no less congenial and important. The latter would help the former get around US sanctions while the former would supply the latter with oil and preferential treatment in investment opportunities. China thus had enough cohesive substance on both sides to persuade them that, under the current conditions in the world, it could help them both to ensure their main interests and to benefit while avoiding various dangers and pitfalls.

China’s success in brokering an agreement between these two regional powers was framed, in the international media, in terms of the rivalry between the three main world powers - the US, Russia and China - and what each of them stood to gain or lose with respect to their rival regional or global interests. However, what concerns us here is that the agreement was a major stepping stone towards the new regionalism pushing for reform, development and regional security in the Middle East during one of the most turbulent periods in world history. The agreement gives impetus to the forces of the peace and stability, and opens the doors to solutions to many of the region’s most pressing and intractable problems. Most importantly, perhaps, it breaks barriers with Iran, a feat that, when taken on top of the breakthroughs with Turkey, has opened avenues towards long elusive horizons of hope. 

In this regard, coincidence sometimes plays a not inconsequential historical role. In response to the tragic losses from the dual earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, Arab countries were among the first to provide humanitarian relief by air and sea. As of writing, the Saudi airbridge to the disaster-struck areas is still in operation while Egypt has drawn on its experience of relief and rescue operations to lend a hand. The humanitarian solidarity borne out of natural catastrophe often reduces the intensity of disputes and animosities between nations and peoples. 

In short, the Saudi-Iranian agreement added a regional building block to others such as the Abraham Accords, the developmental cooperation in the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum, and the new geopolitical realm of cooperation and development made possible by the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border agreement. The Saudi-Iranian agreement has also enhanced the prospects for a solution to the multifaceted Yemeni crisis which has jeopardised the national security of Arab states and inflamed the shameful division between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has been turning the Fertile Crescent into an infertile wasteland and breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. 

If the foregoing problems tell us that there is still a long way to go and many hurdles ahead in building the new regionalism, there remains the crucial question as to whether the exciting Chinese-Saudi agreement and the attendant developments are sufficient to generate the critical mass needed establish durable peace and security between the Arabs and their neighbours. This question is not addressed to writers or analysts, but to politicians, for it concerns the very heart of their work. Officials from abroad will be coming to us with the expectation that we will send a specific message or play a certain role. But, at this time in which Arab states are experiencing a renaissance that aspires to create “a new Europe” in the Middle East, perhaps ambiguity is the most constructive response.

A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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