Saudi Arabia Relies on China to Secure its Normalisation with Iran

The announcement in Beijing on 10 March 2023 of the normalisation of Saudi-Iranian relations had a resounding echo across the world. It will affect the delicate geopolitical balance in the competition between the two superpowers, China and the USA, in a region which is under tension and where the Iranian nuclear issue is still unresolved.

Beijing, 6 April 2023. From left to right, the Iranian, Chinese and Saudi foreign ministers, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Qin Gang and Faiçal Ben Farhan
HO STR/Saudi Press Agency/AFP

Many experts and specialists on that region agree that the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations scheduled for 10 May 2023 is not really a surprise. Indeed, discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran began in April 2021 with the mediation of Baghdad and the help of Oman. In fact, since the new Sultan Haiham took power in the latter country (January 2020), it has moved much closer to Riyadh as well as to Abu Dhabi, in contrast with his predecessor and cousin Qaboos, who was on execrable terms with both his Saudi and Emirati neighbours.

The ongoing process accelerated with a meeting between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers in Beijing on 6 April to arrange the details for the return of ambassadors and consuls and with a press release confirming their determination to eliminate any obstacle that stood in the way of this expansion of their relations.

Fear of a conflagration

Beijing’s mediation, on the other hand, was far more surprising given China’s lack of enthusiasm for playing any role at all in the political and security issues of the region. However, considering the stalemate over the nuclear deal with Iran and the impact of the war in Ukraine on food and energy prices in the region, only Beijing could step in to defuse the situation. China’s excellent relations with all the regional players – Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), but also Iraq, Iran, Israel, and Egypt – provide it with an opportunity to set itself up as a responsible global player, by sponsoring an agreement, easing tensions, and preventing an open conflict between Israel and Iran. US President Joe Biden’s failure to revive the Iran nuclear deal (JCPoA) and curb the escalation between Tel Aviv and Tehran have made Riyadh and Abu Dhabi fear the worst.

Since the end of the pandemic, both countries have been urging Beijing, the region’s most important trade partner, to make its weight felt more actively there. The normalisation with Iran, made possible by Beijing’s commitment to guarantee the respect by both parties of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in its neighbour’s domestic affairs, has made up for the loss of US influence with the Gulf rulers. It has also made up for the incapacity of the countries in the region, though facilitators of the Saudi-Iranian talks, to realise such an accord. In this respect, China has proven to be the ideal player to ensure Tehran’s sincerity. Moreover, as was explained by Abdul Al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Centre (in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia),1 the good offices provided by Beijing in sponsoring this normalisation agreement is a golden opportunity for Riyadh to seize, since everything that has been tried with Washington over the last 45 years to stabilise the region has failed.

Every country in the region, except for Israel, has greeted this normalisation with a sigh of relief. It is mainly China’s commitment as a great power able to build confidence between two States which are its key partners in the region that has raised hopes among the Gulf monarchies. Riyadh is expecting Tehran to facilitate reconciliation between the warring factions in Yemen and particularly to use all its influence to convince the Houthis to conclude a lasting peace on the kingdom’s border. Riyadh also hopes this normalisation will help calm the Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. As for the Islamic Republic, faced with a popular challenge since September 2022, which began as a ‘women’s revolt’ and has spread to the peripheral regions, Kurdish, and Baluchi, where Riyadh is accused of backing these largely Sunni areas, it is counting on the Kingdom to refrain from interfering in its domestic affairs as has been deduced from the Saudi support for opposition media based in London. These levers at Riyadh’s disposal, when the Islamic Republic has never been so weak, seem to have convinced the Iranian regime, jeopardised within and without, to negotiate with the Kingdom.

Security at the heart of the negotiations

The reactivation of the security agreement signed on 17 April 2001 but never implemented is a sign of this trend. During the fours days preceding the signature of the accord, both delegations were led by their country’s chiefs of national security: Mossad Al-Aiban, National Security Councillor for the Kingdom and Ali Shamakani, Secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security of the Islamic Republic. The whole proceedings were under the auspices of Wang Yi, former foreign minister of China (March 2013-December v2022).

In Washington, the agreement provoked an obvious malaise on account of the general scepticism as to Beijing’s ability to satisfy Riyadh’s expectations, i.e., to make Tehran respect its obligations. All US think tanks relay this scepticism. But China’s diplomatic success did bring about a US reaction which, even though it went unnoticed, is anything but insignificant. Indeed, as early as 14 March, i.e., just a few days after the publication of the Saudi-Irano-Chinese press release, the Senate finally confirmed the appointment of its ambassador in Riyadh, Michael Ratney, an Arabic speaker and true connoisseur of the Gulf and the Levant. Yet he had been nominated a whole year before, in April 2022, and the post had been vacant since January 2021.

Yasmin Farouk, a researcher for the Carnegie Endowment believes2 that this accord, under the sponsorship of China, is more than just an effort on the part of Arabia to counterbalance US influence. It reflects a preference for Beijing’s approach which gives priority to the principle of negotiation to settle conflicts between States rather than proposing an alternative global security architecture. Thus, it is thought that Beijing convinced Riyadh to resume relations with Tehran without posing as precondition an end to its support for the Houthi. In this respect, the declarations of the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kamani (30 March) asserting that his country was determined to do everything to achieve an equitable peace in Yemen, are quite unusual. But is Iran capable of making its various allies respect the tripartite accord? They all have their own agenda, as witness the negative reactions voiced by certain Iraqi militias in Iran’s orbit or by the Houthi who have always flaunted their independence from Tehran. On the other hand, in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Republic’s historic ally, in the person of its General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, welcomed the agreement enthusiastically, announcing that it would have immediate effects in Lebanon and Yemen.

Resumption of the nuclear negotiations?

For their part, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom have both shown interest in this development. After the visit to Tehran on 3 March 2023 by Rafael Grossi, head of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – when arrangements were made for the return of IAEA inspectors to all the country’s nuclear facilities – they might even undertake to reactivate the nuclear negotiations. In fact, this was what a meeting in Oslo on 21 March seemed to indicate, bringing together Al Baqeri-Kani, Iranian negotiator on the nuclear issue and the three Political Directors of the Foreign Ministries of the UK, France, and Germany. They were accompanied by Enrique Mora, Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Political Director, European External Action Service, Brussels. The absence of Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran, confirms Washington’s embarrassment.

Saudi publicist Abdul-Aziz Alghashian, a sharp observer of the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement and who was present at the Jeddah summit in July 2022 – attended by President Biden and all the chiefs of State of the CCG + Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – believes that Riyadh became aware on that occasion that normalisation with Iran was a prerequisite to any future normalisation with Israel, however gradual. Considering the stalemate on the nuclear issue, Biden tried to convince Riyadh to join the Abraham accords like its Gulf neighbours (Abu Dhabi and Bahrain). However, the absence of any solution to the Palestinian issue dissuaded Riyadh from accepting anything more than an informal rapprochement which would have been exploited by Tehran to make Riyadh’s position even more uncomfortable. Of course, this is not how Tel Aviv sees the matter, counting on a normalisation of its relations with Riyadh to form an Israeli-Arab front against Iran.

Mohamed Alsulaimi, head of the Saudi think tank Rassanah, also stresses the many subjects which Saudis and Iranians discussed in the talks sponsored by Baghdad and Muscat over the past two years. Moreover, the Saudis’ new diplomatic stance, which consists of giving more attention to the defence of their national interests than to their special relationship with the United States, may have convinced Tehran to be better disposed towards Riyadh.

Though the resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations is based on the 2001 security agreement, the reference to the 1998 trade agreement contained in the press release, followed the very next day by a declaration from acting Minister of Planning and Economy Mohamed Al-Jadaan, stressing Riyadh’s willingness to invest in Iran and develop its trade relations with the Republic are signs of the inflexion which Riyadh intends giving its diplomatic approach under this normalisation. While crown prince Mohamed Ben Salma (MBS) has finally managed to turn the page on his isolation following the Khashoggi affair, Riyadh wants henceforth to see its diplomatic activities placed under the sign of the multipolar world in the making to be seen as a medium-sized power with an influence reaching beyond its identity as a purely Islamic power.

By holding out to Iran the prospect of future investments, Riyadh is banking on the idea that trade relations will create ties with Tehran, making economic dynamics the key to a lasting normalisation.

The dreams of MBS

And indeed, it is on his country’s economic dynamics that the crown prince is relying on to materialise the new directions of his diplomacy. He wants it to be built on a better regional integration by investing in infrastructures, logistics, food security, the energy transition and everything associated with common goods and human safety.

Seeming to have drawn the lessons of his disastrous interventionism in Yemen since 2015 and the crisis which pitted him against Qatar from 2017 in the footsteps of his one-time mentor, the President of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed Ben Zayed (MBZ), now his rival, MBS cherishes, like his neighbour, the dream of his country’s becoming the Middle East’s economic, technological and touristic ‘hub.’ With his ‘Vision 2030’ and his watchword ‘Saudi First,’ MBS aims to make the Kingdom, considering its position at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, the logistic ‘hub’ fot western Asia with the help of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), so dear to President Xi Jinping. Reaching these objectives requires, first of all, putting an end to the war in Yemen and avoiding any military clash between Israel and Iran.

It is in the light of these goals that we must interpret Riyadh’s decision, taken on 29 March, to join as a ‘dialogue partner,’ The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), headed by Beijing and Moscow, or the interest displayed in May 2020, for joining the BRICS, alongside Egypt, Indonesia, the UAE, Senegal, or Algeria. At the regional level, this dynamic is marked by many multilateral partnerships and processes of détente with Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Qatar. Or by the forthcoming normalisation with Syria, which will most likely be announced at the next Arab League Summit, on 19 May in Riyadh. Just as China has sponsored the normalisation with Iran, so Russia will have facilitated this rapprochement by making sure that Damascus prevents the illegal exporting of Captagon, a drug now flooding the market in Arabia and its Gulf neighbours.

At the same time, the Saudis have no wish to alienate the United States. They are enthusiastically pursuing their economic ties with corporate America, as illustrated by the contract signed on 14 March with Boeing for 37 billion dollars, not to mention the many armaments contracts concluded with Washington following President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom (15–16 July 2022). All of Riyadh’s official declarations since the signing of the Beijing agreement have been aimed at reassuring their US partner, stressing their intention of achieving a judicious balance between the two superpowers with each of which Riyadh shares interests that, though certainly different, are not incompatible.

1We met with all the researchers quoted in this article during trips to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.