Professors Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr examine the changes unfolding in the Middle East, where old alliances are shifting and new relationships are forming. Saudi Arabia is working to reduce tensions with Iran and foster ties with China, a geopolitical realignment that could help the kingdom enhance its security and attain a higher profile in world affairs. This illuminating report offers a solid background on the transformations underway in the Middle East as well as an explanation why the United States should reconsider its current diplomatic approach to the region.
- The normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will affect the entire region.
- China’s involvement in this accord has been strategic.
- The United States will need to reevaluate its approach in the region.
The normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will affect the entire region.
Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are moving toward a détente of sorts. This easing of tensions could bring about a major power shift, eliminating a bitter rivalry and developing a series of economic and geopolitical relationships in the region. Diplomatic efforts have been ongoing for some time to bring the two regional powers together, to make progress on nuclear negotiations and to end the proxy war in Yemen. Washington, DC, encouraged a tie-up between Israel and the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC), a regional alliance of Gulf states, in an effort to keep Iran at bay.
“This landmark agreement has the potential to transform the Middle East by realigning its major powers…For Beijing, the announcement was a great leap forward in its rivalry with Washington.”
Yet the Saudis chose to work through China instead: The two nations announced an agreement to normalize their diplomatic relations in March 2023. The kingdom reckoned that having China on its side would help in its reconciliation with Iran, given the latter’s reluctance to jeopardize its relationship with Beijing. Under a new arrangement, Iran and Saudi Arabia will cease their proxy battle in Yemen and work toward ending the civil war. Additionally, Iran and the GCC will look to better their economic and diplomatic relations and develop regional security. This could significantly improve Iran’s stature in the region; indeed, if events proceed as envisaged, Saudi Arabia would consider investments in Iran.
China’s involvement in this accord has been strategic.
Much has changed since 2015, when Iran’s first order of business was to normalize relations with America and Europe. Out of this came the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons initiative in return for reduced sanctions. The Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal of US support for the agreement and a warming of relations between the GCC and Israel led Iran to change tack.
“Both Tehran and Riyadh believe that they will benefit from working through China to restore regional ties. For both countries, working with Beijing is a new development.”
China’s involvement dilutes America’s control in the region, weakens the sanctions program and brings Iran closer to its Arab neighbors. Iran distrusts a US-supported Israeli-Arab alliance, especially in view of Israel’s growing influence in Azerbaijan and Iraq and the increasing hostility of an Israeli hard-right government that could consider military action against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The United States will need to reevaluate its approach in the region.
Ensuring its security underpins Saudi Arabia’s efforts to broaden its base of partners – China, the United States and Israel – and to improve its relations with Iran, Syria and Turkey. The kingdom will need this foundation as it seeks to become a developed economy and a center for tourism and culture. Its approach runs counter to Washington’s now-dated concept of regional security; namely, using the kingdom to isolate Iran.
“Washington must also formulate policies that are in tune with how the region now sees its own interests. Otherwise, it will continue to lose influence to China and Russia, and the region will drift into nonalignment.”
Saudi Arabia aspires to greater independence and regional influence, rather than being in thrall to the United States. A reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia will also enhance China’s economic presence in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative, allowing it to create alternative trade routes that avoid those bulwarks of America and its allies, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. America needs to reconsider its approach to the region in light of these new dynamics.
About the Authors
Maria Fantappie is an associate fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. Vali Nasr is a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.