Review Nepal News

Reshaping security dynamics in the Middle East
  Kathmandu, Nepal      March 17 2023

By M A Hossain

Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the most influential and rival countries in the Middle East(ME).  These two rivals have been engaged in a power struggle to establish their dominance in the region, and their rivalry has had far-reaching consequences not only in the region but also on the global stage. Recently, Riyadh and Tehran announced of restoring full diplomatic relations in an agreement brokered by China. Obviously, that could reduce tensions in the Middle East and assert China's growing influence in the Gulf. China's powerful and rising diplomatic presence in the Gulf is reshaping the security dynamics, and it contributes to a narrative of a shrinking US global presence.

The tumultuous tale of Iran-Saudi Arabia animosity dates back to the epochal 1979 Islamic revolution that upended the Persian nation. As the years rolled on, this hostility intensified and reached a boiling point during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Saudi Arabia and a host of other Arab countries brazenly backed Iraq in their relentless strife against Iran. Fast-forward to the Arab Spring in 2011, and this longstanding rivalry took on a fresh and fevered pitch. In the cauldron of political upheaval, both nations seized an opportunity to exert their influence and gain an upper hand in the tumultuous region. Unsurprisingly, the belligerent duo opted for a proxy war strategy, with Iran providing support to Shia-militia, while Saudi Arabia offered its backing to Sunni tribes. The battlegrounds of this ferocious feud spanned far and wide, from Lebanon and Yemen to Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria.

The animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia has had profound and wide-ranging repercussions both regionally and globally. The strife in Syria has resulted in the dislocation of millions of individuals and has destabilised the region. Similarly, the conflict in Yemen has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe, with millions of individuals confronted with starvation and illness. These two nations are significant oil producers on the international stage, and any discord between them can have a disruptive effect on the global oil market. Furthermore, the emergence of extremist Islamic organisations, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, in that area, represents an opportunity cost resulting from the ongoing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

China possesses the ability to intervene in the Middle Eastern region and mediate in the diplomatic relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to the detriment of American interests and sway. Saudi Arabia has been a crucial cornerstone of the United States' ties within the area. However, Saudi Arabia gradually altered its policies after the 9/11 attacks, and the US failed to lend its support in response to the Iranian attack on Abqaiq in 2019. The Western world has advocated for the cessation of arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Yemeni conflict. Furthermore, Riyadh's choice to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017 was deemed controversial by the USA.

On the other hand, in December 2022, Iran and China agreed to a 25-year deal aimed at enhancing their relationship. China has also entered into a five-year plan with six Gulf nations. It is apparent that China is actively seeking to broaden its connections within the region, and the collaboration between Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate with China in achieving normalization between them is indicative of China's ascension to a strategic partner within the region.

China has emerged as a significant patron of oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its adeptness in fostering cordial ties with the countries flanking the Persian Gulf has enabled it to amass diplomatic capital that exceeds that of other non-regional powers. Notably, the United States' influence in Tehran is conspicuously non-existent, whereas China has strategically employed the carrot of economic and developmental aid without showing the stick of punitive measures, to pursue its interests. Conversely, the US has typically resorted to punitive measures alone, lacking the diplomatic finesse that China possesses.

Unfortunately, Washington's standing as a peace broker in the vicinity has been undermined by its perceived unreliability and inclination to favour one side in disputes, as observed in Yemen and Syria. Conversely, China is regarded as a flexible mediator that refrains from favouring any particular side. Consequently, a higher number of regional stakeholders may seek China's assistance as a mediator in forthcoming endeavours.

Since the inception of the trillion-dollar initiative announced by the Chinese leader in 2013, over 200 major energy and infrastructure projects have been successfully completed in the region. Despite the significant challenges, many of the targets set by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been achieved. During Xi's visit in December 2022, China and Saudi Arabia released a joint statement underscoring the importance of augmenting bilateral collaboration in military and security domains, with a focus on combating terrorism and extremism and upholding regional peace and stability. Additionally, China pledged its support to the Gulf states in maintaining their security, resolving conflicts through peaceful means, and developing a new and comprehensive security framework for the Gulf.

The recent re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran has raised questions about the shift in power dynamics in the Middle East region. China's growing involvement in the region, particularly its close ties with Iran, has led many to believe that it is slowly replacing the United States as a key player in the region. Therefore, while China's increasing role in the region cannot be ignored, the US remains a vital security partner for the Gulf Arab states, and their strategic alliance is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

M A Hossain, political and defense analyst based in Bangladesh.