China as the new mediator in the Middle East?

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Beijing's mediation between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran highlights the perception and role of the USA in the crisis region of the Middle East – and in the world.

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Arch rivals shake hands – in Beijing: representatives of Saudi Arabia (l) and Iran (r) with the mediator China (m)

The fact that representatives of Saudi Arabia and Iran sat together for five days at the beginning of March was a sensation in itself. The fact that the arch-rivals in the Persian Gulf even agreed to resume diplomatic relations on March 10 caused quite a stir. The biggest surprise of the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran was that the two warring neighbors shook hands in Beijing of all places.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been hostile to each other since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. For more than ten years they have supported opposing parties in conflicts in the region and waged proxy wars. They have not maintained diplomatic relations for seven years. Successful mediation at what is perhaps the Middle East's most dangerous fault line has brought a new quality to China's role in the region. jpg” />

War in Yemen: Here, too, Saudi Arabia and Iran support opposing sides

China: Relations with all sides

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East program at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, ECFR, analyzes that the United States, long the undisputed shaping power in the Gulf, has declined to mediate. Washington maintains no relations with Tehran and has “very little constructive influence to reach an agreement here.” Adds Barnes-Dacey, “The basic reality here is that China was able to intervene because it had relationships with and influence on all sides to drive it forward.”

This influence is primarily based on the economy: For both Iran and Saudi Arabia, China is by far the most important trading partner, explains former US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman. In other parts of the Middle East, too, trade with China is three times greater than with the United States. “We cannot ignore China's importance to this region,” concludes Feltman.

Oil tankers in Saudi Arabia : China depends on the Gulf region for its energy supply

Sebastian Sons from the Bonn Middle East think tank CARPO is currently in Qatar, where DW reached him for a telephone interview. The Middle East expert observes that China in the Gulf is no longer perceived only as an economic partner, but also as a possible political and even security partner. Sons sees a clear appreciation of China in the Beijing agreement. At the same time, he notes “that the USA, and Europe too, by the way, have massively lost trust in the region in recent years and are therefore hardly perceived as a really serious deal broker or mediator”.

Little Enthusiasm in Washington

US politicians perceived Beijing's mediation success with the expected muted enthusiasm. “China's role in this isn't exactly going to warm hearts in Washington,” Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy summed up the mood in a tweet.

The US government has welcomed the agreement cautiously – and otherwise tries to downplay China's role as a mediator. The National Security Council's communications director, John Kirby, packed a lot of reservations into his initial reaction to the signing of the Beijing treaty: “If this agreement can be maintained – regardless of the interests or who sat down at the table – if it can be maintained and the war in Yemen can be ended and Saudi Arabia doesn't have to constantly try to defend itself against Iran-sponsored and supported Houthi attacks, then ultimately we welcome that.”

Jeffrey Feltman, who has mediated for the United Nations in numerous conflicts, also recalls an important fact: diplomatic relations are by no means the end of the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Great power rivalry in the background< /h2>

But the US diplomat also sees China's mediation in the context of the systemic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. And there he perceives a clear shift in the circumstances to which US politics must adjust. The United States would have to accept that countries like Saudi Arabia, with which the United States has maintained close ties for 75 years, will also protect themselves in all directions in the future. “They will resist pressure to align themselves with one camp or another. We see that in Russia's war in Ukraine. And we see it in the rivalry between the US and China: there are many countries with which the US has close ties had and still have, but we cannot expect them to join our side in the rivalry with China,” observes Feltman.

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (r) is said to get along better personally with China's head of state Xi Jinping (l) than with US President Joe Biden

The Middle East expert Dina Esfandiary from the Brussels think tank Crisis Group is also certain that the countries on the Gulf are repositioning themselves in view of the general political climate. With unpleasant consequences for Washington: “The smaller countries will play off the great powers against each other in order to get the greatest possible benefit from their relations.”

Beijing's image cultivation

At the beginning of December, China's state and party leader Xi Jinping was welcomed with all honors at the first ever Arab-Chinese summit meeting in Riyadh. Incidentally, the impression was dispelled that China in the Gulf was only concerned with economic relations. Which is not surprising given that a significant part of China's energy supply depends on stable conditions in the Gulf region. Crisis Group expert Esfandiary sees another motive for Beijing's increased commitment: “China is trying to present itself as an alternative model, as a partner, as a mediator – and as different from the Western model.”

The Saudi -Iranian handshake fits into a diplomatic offensive, with which China wants to present itself as a peace-making force of balance. Just days after the Saudi-Iranian deal, Xi Jinping announced a “Global Civilization Initiative.” In the spring of 2022, Xi had already launched the “Global Security Initiative” and in 2021 the “Global Development Initiative” – ​​papers with vague wording and few specific commitments. In the west, these advances were only marginally noticed. In the Global South, however, Beijing can polish up its image – and score points in the system competition.