Imagine sitting in President Joe Biden’s Oval Office, immersed in the debate surrounding the Beijing deal. Everyone present concurs that this is the first time China has taken the bold step of intervening in the Middle East and attempting to resolve the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two largest countries on either side of the Gulf.
The crux of the matter is whether the White House would perceive this as a golden opportunity to ease tensions and chart a new course of action in the region, or whether it should view it as a Chinese power grab in an area that has long been considered within the United States sphere of influence. After all, the Suez crisis in the 1950s saw the expulsion of the British, and the subsequent termination of their “protection” in the 1960s and 1970s.
China currently imports two million barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia, with plans to increase this amount in the future. In sharp contrast, the United States only procures 300,000 barrels per day from Saudi Arabia, which accounts for roughly seven percent of its crude oil needs, and this figure is expected to decrease. When compared to the more than 50 percent of the oil that the United States imports from neighboring Canada, this amount is relatively small. Therefore, while Washington can afford to lessen its dependence on Saudi and Gulf oil, China cannot. The Chinese attempt to improve relations between Riyadh and Tehran should not be seen as a crisis, in theory.
The rivalry between the two superpowers complicates matters. It is likely that some Americans will express dissenting opinions, viewing China’s attempt to involve Saudi Arabia in their affairs as a threat to American influence in the Gulf region. They may believe that China is seeking to alleviate the pressure on its ally, Iran, while Iran seeks to neutralize Saudi Arabia and expand its reach in the region.
This raises the question of why Saudi Arabia accepted the Chinese mediator. China’s active involvement in regional matters is not a new occurrence, with Beijing’s involvement in the JCPOA talks with Iran in Vienna being approved by Washington. Additionally, China has participated in several rounds of Palestinian peace negotiations.
China is a crucial trading partner for Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, which underscores the profound influence that regional conflict has on China. In terms of purchasing oil, which is the lifeline of Gulf state economies, the United States cannot replace China, and it cannot act as a mediator with Iran either.
The United States will continue to play a crucial role as the Gulf states’ military partner and influential figure in the region for at least a decade, despite the existing constraints.
Is it possible that China’s mediation could serve as a lifeline for Iran, preventing it from sinking under the weight of sanctions and protests? Rather than analyzing the situation solely from Iran’s point of view, let’s adopt a different perspective. The Beijing deal may prove to be advantageous for Washington, as it addresses the Gulf nations’ repeated appeals for US assistance or security guarantees against Iranian threats. The success of the deal would alleviate this burden. The deal is not anticipated to include military annexes that would allow China to establish bases or deploy warships to protect trade routes and prevent Iran from attacking its neighbors. The Saudi Arabian, Iranian, and Chinese governments’ shared interests serve as the basis for the deal. Any direct or indirect attacks by Iran or its affiliated militias in Yemen or Iraq against Saudi vessels or facilities will be viewed as an attack on China, the primary sponsor of the deal.
What about Iran’s goal to neutralize Saudi Arabia? Iran has made many enemies that are unrelated to its disagreements with Riyadh. The deal could potentially provide a new opportunity for Iran to engage with the Arab world through reconciliation rather than through arms and militias, contrary to the policy of isolating Saudi Arabia from regional issues.
Just a few months ago, Turkey was embroiled in conflicts with nearly half of its neighboring countries. But today, it has managed to reach agreements with all of them, even with Israel, which has led to significant improvements in economic, political, and foreign relations. Now, the ball is in Iran’s court to expand this reconciliatory trend further, and perhaps, neutralizing Saudi Arabia could serve as a motivator for Iran to end four decades of tension with the Arab world.
Many are skeptical about Beijing’s ability to ensure Iran’s behavior towards Saudi Arabia and the success of the deal. However, we remain both realistic and optimistic. Though there are no guarantees, we must give peace a chance. We are hopeful that China will take the lead in resolving conflicts with Iran in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as promoting peace with Israel. It may even play a role in finding a solution to the contentious issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which is of paramount importance to the international community.
Certainly, the United States and Europe would welcome China’s involvement if it can help to resolve the challenging Saudi Iranian dispute.