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China plays peacemaker in the Gulf

For two years, Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in on-off talks to ease their bitter rivalry. Such was the mistrust that little progress was made — until China stepped in. Last week, the arch foes announced that, with Beijing’s mediation, they had agreed to normalise relations and reopen embassies, seven years after severing ties.

Any deal that helps to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East is to be welcomed. The rivalry between the Sunni and Shia heavyweights has stoked conflict and instability across the region — most notably in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia launched a catastrophic war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels eight years ago. But the accord marked the emergence of China as a diplomatic powerbroker, and a challenge by Beijing to the US-centric global system.

The breakthrough surprised many. Just five months ago, US officials warned of the imminent threat of an Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia as Tehran blamed its enemies for stoking protests in the Islamic republic. Peace between the two appeared distant. China’s diplomatic coup underscores Beijing’s growing influence in the oil-rich region.

Some view it as another sign of Washington’s waning standing in the Gulf, where Arab states traditionally considered the US the prime security, diplomatic and economic partner. They are right — up to a point.

The agreement comes after a period of fraught relations between Riyadh and Washington, partly fuelled by perceptions that the US has been disengaging from the region and is no longer a reliable partner. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued a more independent foreign policy as Riyadh seeks to balance its ties with the US with those with China and others.

While the US reliance on Gulf oil has diminished over the past decade, China has become the kingdom’s biggest trade partner and its main buyer of crude. And, crucially for the Saudi crown prince, the relationship comes with no pressure to improve the kingdom’s dismal human rights record.

Yet even if relations between Washington and Riyadh were at their warmest, it is hard to see how the US could have brokered such a deal. Washington has had no formal diplomatic ties with Iran since 1980; its relationship has been characterised by deep hostility.

In contrast, China is happy to engage with Iran and is assumed to be the main buyer of crude shipped out of the Islamic republic under the radar of US sanctions. Beijing last month hosted Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi. Saudi officials are betting that China will hold Iran to account.

All this points to China’s rising geopolitical ambitions. For years, its focus in the region was economic and trade, not political or security. But Beijing’s decision to broker the rapprochement fits with the Global Security Initiative it launched in February, setting out its aim to be a global actor and spread its vision of security and development.

The question is whether China’s diplomacy delivers durable results. The key test will be in Yemen, where a truce has held since April. Riyadh is keen to exit the conflict and end Houthi drone and missile attacks which disrupt development and deter foreign investment. It will not be easy, though, to reach a sustainable settlement to a proxy conflict that is, at root, a civil war.

It would also be naive to expect anything more than a cold peace between Riyadh and Tehran. For now, an agreement serves Iran and Saudi Arabia’s interests and allows Beijing to act as peacemaker. That produces a less volatile Middle East. There are reasons to cheer but also to jeer as China flexes its diplomatic clout.

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