DEAL WIN-WIN FOR ALL THE PARTICIPANTS AS IT SYMBOLISES SIGNIFICANT DIPLOMATIC VICTORY OF CHINA OVER THE US CONSIDERED MAJOR ALLY OF GULF ARAB COUNTRIES
Iran and Saudi Arabia, on March 10, signed a historic agreement to restore their diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after years-long tensions. Both countries also agreed to implement security and economic cooperation agreements signed in 2001. Iran-Saudi relations worsened in 2016 when the latter executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Baqir al-Nimr, on terrorism-related charges. The Iranian protesters, as a result, ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, since then, have remained suspended. The agreement, brokered by China, has far-reaching impact on the Gulf Arab region, the neighbouring South Asian region, particularly Pakistan, and the world at large, not only in terms of China’s assertive role in global politics amid its growing rivalry with the United States but also in terms of the changing regional alliances in the Gulf region as well as countering the common threat of religious extremism and terrorism. Signed in Beijing, the deal is a win-win for all the participants China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It symbolises a significant diplomatic victory of China over the US, which has been considered a major ally of the Gulf Arab countries. It not only shows the maturity of Chinese diplomacy to work for global peace but also signifies the nation’s in-roads in the Gulf region in the wake of a growing perception among the regional Arab countries of a slow withdrawal of the US from the Middle East. Although, the US has welcomed the move by stating it would lead to establishing peace in Yemen, where both Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides and, as a result, the whole region has witnessed severe devastation and humanitarian crisis; however, at the same time, it has also expressed concerns about the Iranian commitment to honour the deal. Moreover, China’s growing influence in the Gulf region’s politics would likely transect the US’ influence, though not hegemony, in the Middle Eastern region and beyond. Like the US, China is also obsessed with the geo-strategic stability of the Middle East which is crucial for its economic interests too. Although China may not be in a position to challenge the current status quo in the Gulf Arab region; rather it is more bent on extracting the economic benefits, particularly ensuring safe oil shipments from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries under the existing regional security paradigm amid its vulnerability of the maritime shipping lanes in the Gulf and Indian Ocean that are mainly dominated by the US Military. However, China’s slow and gradual in-roads may put a dent in American interests within the Gulf Arab region and beyond. For instance, for the United States, which is embarked upon isolating Iran, the deal has been a matter of embarrassment as it not only engaged Tehran in regional and international affairs but also provided China with a strong foothold in the region. This was evident when in February this year, China hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly showed China’s support to Iran in “safeguarding national sovereignty” and “resisting unilateralism and bullying.” President Xi also reiterated China’s ‘constructive participation’ in the negotiations for the restoration of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The US unilaterally withdrew from the agreement under the Trump Administration in 2018. Since then, the negotiation process has stalled. Similarly, in December last year, President Xi visited Saudi Arabia and signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He also attended the first 2022 China-Arab States Summit and the China-GCC Summit and signed over 30 energy and investment agreements. Furthermore, the deal will also give a boost to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as there is a possibility of the extension of the project in the Middle East as well. For Iran, the deal will help end its international and regional isolation as Tehran has been facing severe pressure from Israel and the US for ending its nuclear programme. Although Saudi Arabia also has major concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme, however, the Chinese guarantees may address the Saudi apprehensions. Moreover, one of the major impacts of the Saudi-Iran growing diplomatic ties is on the domestic political affairs of Iran where the clerics have been facing staunch criticism of their shariah-based rule. The recent hijab issue is a case in point. The deal would also strengthen the religious scholars’ rule in Iran as Saudi interventions in domestic affairs may be lowered as a result of the lessening of the trust deficit between the two countries. Interestingly, one of the common aspects of China, Saudi Arabia and Iran is that they are all authoritarian regimes, so there will be no pressing of promoting democracy in Iran. Similarly, it is also expected that China would invest billions of dollars in Iran, and also help the latter in developing its Chabahar port which would provide the former with the shortest route to Central Asia. In the case of Saudi Arabia, China has been seen as a new strategic partner amid growing mistrust between Riyadh and Washington. It is noted that Saudi-US relations reached the lowest ebb when the latter blamed the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) for his direct involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Another issue that caused strained relations between the two countries was regarding oil production in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. The American request to increase oil production in order to maintain global oil prices was turned down by Saudi Arabia. Rather, the Saudis cut down oil production by two million barrels per day, justifying the decision purely on economic reasons. Therefore, as a result of the flourishing Saudi-China relations, Riyadh’s reliance upon Washington for security matters may be lessened. Moreover, the thaw in relations with Iran would also help MBS carry out his ambitious vision 2030 for which regional peace is a prerequisite. Pakistan is the most-impacted beneficiary of the restored Iran-Saudi diplomatic relations. The country has warmly welcomed the move, and also hoped that it would contribute to peace and stability in the region. Pakistan has been experiencing the brunt of the Tehran-Riyadh ideological rivalry for the last four decades or so. Since the Iranian Revolution in February 1979, the surge of secterian violence has not only caused thousands of casualties in Pakistan but also sharply divided Pakistani society on sectarian lines. Therefore, it is ascertained that the normalisation of relations between the two regional rivals in the Middle East would have a positive impact on Pakistan, where both the Gulf Arab countries have their respective sectarian proxies that are actively involved in perpetrating sectarian violence. Moreover, the Saudi pressure on Pakistan would be eased as the latter, in recent decades, has been struggling to avoid the perception of being pro-Saudi Arabia and anti-Iran. It must be noted that Pakistan remained neutral in the Yemen War when the Saudi government carried out a military campaign against the pro-Iranian Houthis. Since then, Pakistan has been pursuing a mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the de-escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf region. Furthermore, ease in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf region would also give confidence to Pakistan to effectively focus on the homegrown violent extremist and terrorist groups, especially the sectarian ones, as well as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as some of its factions have their links with the self-styled Middle Eastern terrorist group, Daesh. Although the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia is a good omen for the region; nevertheless, this does not mean that the two ideological rivals have struck a solution to their conflicts or have completely ended their differences. The wide gulf of mistrust is still there. Moreover, the regional conflicts, such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, in which both the states have been actively involved, have yet to be negotiated. However, the two countries need to realise the value of peace in the changing global scenario and work together for removing misunderstandings and building friendly relations for the improvement of regional security and stability. Dr. Naeem Ahmed is an associate professor and former chairman of KU.