The unexpected has just happened before our eyes. Emerging superpower China has activated its diplomacy successfully in the Middle East — the traditional role of the US — and has reconciled its two main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, after talks lasting several days in Beijing. The talks ended with an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran after a seven-year estrangement.
China can now rely on a more stable influence in the region despite the China-Gulf summit in Riyadh on 9 December which resulted in a statement that irritated Iran because it spoke clearly about Tehran's destabilising activities in the region. The 25-year strategic partnership agreement signed by Beijing and Tehran on 27 March 2021 was shaken by this.
We should not be surprised that China has reaped the fruit of the pressure imposed by US President Joe Biden's administration on Riyadh since he entered the White House in early 2021, against the backdrop of the war in Yemen, and the return of US openness towards Iran. Washington instructed Iraq to sponsor Saudi-Iran talks that began at the relatively low-security level and then developed into senior diplomatic contacts. Oman then became involved as a sponsor of the talks, which suggests that the Saudi-Iran rapprochement was, in part, a means to meet the demands of the US for Riyadh to submit, especially since such pressure coincided with renewed debate over Iran's nuclear programme.
Iraq has been excluded from the diplomatic benefits in this, as if it had done nothing, and the spotlight is on China, which will certainly build on this achievement to have a diplomatic role in major world events. Meanwhile, Iraq remains a large Arab country in the hands of sectarian rulers, who have pawned their country to Iran and its strategic and ideological interests.
READ: Iran promised UN chief to hold talks to end Yemen crisis
Saudi Arabia and Iran were not only on the brink of war, but they also remain involved in a real proxy war in Yemen, which shares a border with the Kingdom. The eastern province of Saudi Arabia and its oil facilities were turned into a battlefield, with international evidence proving that Iran provided missiles and drones which were used to target Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. This attack neutralised nearly fifty per cent of the Kingdom's oil production capacity, and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility.
The matter did not stop there. The missiles that targeted the Kingdom's oil facilities and cities were the outcome of the shift in the Houthi proxy war, after a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hassan Irloo, arrived in Sanaa in the guise of an ambassador. Ballistic missiles and drones were delivered by Iran to the Houthis, accompanied by experts and officers from the IRGC's Quds Force.
Iran benefited from keeping its Houthi allies beyond the scope of UN sanctions until the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on the group in February last year. The Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea have, despite some limited objections by the West, been open to Iranian ships throughout the years of the Yemen war. This helped to create a sea bridge for Iranian supplies to the Houthis, along with other land and air routes.
The violent response in Iran to Saudi Arabia's execution of pro-Iran Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr on 2 January 2016 saw Iranians storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. This resulted in Saudi severing diplomatic relations with Iran, which was still angry that the Saudis had intervened in the conflict in Yemen.
Iran felt that it would lose influence in Yemen, where both Saudi Arabia and the UAE had responded violently and recklessly to the effects of the Arab Spring, which carried with it the indicators of a stable and prosperous state that guaranteed the security, stability and prosperity of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. It was not surprising that quashing the Arab Spring in Yemen led to bad developments, through which the countries involved militarily in the Yemen war — Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among others — became exposed strategically and dependent on the will of the international community.
This is why I do not see the resumption of Saudi-Iran relations as an important development from a strategic point of view; it is purely tactical. The roots of the differences between the two are greater than the ability of diplomacy and pragmatism to overcome them.
I say this because both countries went to Beijing with a series of domestic and external failures. Iran lives in international isolation, a suffocating economic blockade and local unrest that poses an existential threat to the Vilayat-e Faqih regime. It is also facing the serious threat of an imminent US-Israel war. Saudi Arabia went to Beijing burdened by its damaged relations with the US, its strategic ally for nearly a century. It is also facing the choice of making bitter concessions in Yemen, in addition to the consequences of the emerging discord with regional partners who were brought together in Riyadh by the emergency alliances produced by the Trump era.
READ: Reactions to Iran and Saudi Arabia resuming ties
Perhaps it is important to follow the impact that the return of Saudi-Iranian relations will have on the war in Yemen, which, after eight years, represents one of the main weak points in the Kingdom's regional and international positions, although it could have turned this war into a strong point if it wanted to.
Iran's seriousness about building sustainable understandings with Riyadh can be tested through the space that it leaves for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. I believe that Tehran will work by all possible means to empower its Houthi allies and keep their political project difficult for Saudi Arabia to digest.
This will either push Saudi Arabia to make dangerous concessions, or rebuild the Yemeni alignment of allies to decide the fate of the Yemeni crisis through more decisive moves. For this, Saudi Arabia needs nothing more than to view the matter as a legitimate confrontation between the Yemeni state and the rebels, and ensure that its legitimate authority can access the power resources that would enable it to achieve a crushing victory over rebellious forces in the north and south of the country.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 12 March 2023
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.