When China successfully initiated and brokered an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran on March 6 2023, some saw it as a significant change, while a few others anticipate the deal will be a headache for China. But for many, the deal was a surprise.
For years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting each other both diplomatically and indirectly through proxy conflicts over dominance in the Middle East. The deal they reached was signed with the conspicuous absence of the United States – one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies in the region.
I talked with Paul Salem, the President and CEO of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington D.C. With him I discussed the implications of this accord for U.S. foreign policy. Salem is a prolific writer on the Middle East including Escaping the Conflict Trap: Toward Ending Civil Wars in the Middle East (2019). Prior to joining MEI, Salem was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon from 2006-2013.
This is part one of our conversation. Part two will be posted soon.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1- To what extent did the Beijing-brokered accord signal a new role for China in the Middle East, a region where the U.S. has been the major political player during the past 75 years?
The deal itself did not really alarm the U.S. because the main element initially was in favor of Saudi Arabia to stop the bombing campaign on Saudi Arabia from the Houthis.
The fact that China brokered the deal drew attention in Washington, but did not really cause much alarm. Beijing has relations with Iran, and needs oil from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is so dominant in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. So, China is really not challenging that position. China is a big economic power and is challenging the U.S. in the South China Sea in Taiwan, (but) it is not challenging the U.S. in the Middle East.
2- But don’t you think that through the accord, China will be playing a major role in the region?
Not in a major way… With Israel and Palestine, the Chinese can do nothing. They have no real role in Yemen. Chinese policy and strategy does not seek currently to challenge or really compete with the U.S. or challenge the U.S. in the Middle East. They are happy the U.S. has its Navy there that ensures oil goes from the Persian Gulf to China, that the U.S. Navy keeps the sea lanes open so Chinese ships can export their products around the world.
All this is done through U.S. taxpayer expenditure and it is done for free from China’s perspective. So, right now, no, it is not a major concern.
Paul Salem, President and CEO of the Middle East Institute.
3- What would be the implications of this accord? Do you see for instance Saudi Arabia delaying its consideration of joining the Abrahams accords – Trump administration’s deal that saw some Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognize Israel? The Saudis seem to have asked in exchange for opening formal ties with Israel, the United States for security guarantees, help developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales…
The two tracks are not connected regardless of any negotiation with Iran. The so-called deal with Iran is very limited. Saudi Arabia and Tehran remain basically enemies. The deal has the elements of a ceasefire, a de-escalation, a calm open diplomatic relationship. It is not much more than that. And Saudi Arabia intends under the right conditions to move forward with normalization with Israel. It has nothing to do with China or Iran or anything else. If it does, as you mentioned, Saudi Arabia would like some things from the U.S., that might mean it might wait for a more friendly administration in Washington, maybe after the 2024 elections. Maybe 2025, particularly if Trump is coming back. That would be ideal for them or another Republican. This is not to say that it is impossible to do it with Biden or a Democrat, but currently it is a bit more difficult. They would also need to wait for a more reasonable government in Jerusalem. Israel’s current government is way too crazy to do a deal with. So, the deal is going to happen, but not immediately right now.
4- So you do not see the regional order changing?
Well, it will change. The Saudi normalization with Israel will be the much bigger change. Of course, it has already happened with the UAE and Bahrain. But Saudi Arabia is so much bigger, so much more important. That will be a regional game changer. I would not call the de-escalation and exploration of diplomacy with Iran a regional game changer.
But you know, it is a regional game influencer, for less conflicts maybe. Hosting Saudi talks, making progress in Yemen that could reach some kind of a peace deal and an end to the civil war. You might see some diplomacy changes in Lebanon to elect a president and the formation of a new government with a new prime minister. You are seeing a normalization with Syrian President Bachar el Assad, which is partly linked to de-escalating with Iran. That is significant.
It does not mean that Saudi Arabia and Iran will in any way be really friends or allies or partners. But it might mean that the level of conflict and separation and division might be considerably less. And that is important.