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A Bumpy Ride in the Middle East

Jan 02, 2024
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

The geopolitical trajectory of the Middle East was a roller coaster ride in 2023. In early March, under a deal brokered by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a joint statement announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries and setting in motion the political process of reconciliation and detente in the Middle East. However, in October, a conflict broke out. Hamas militants raided Israel, and Israel retaliated onslaught on the group in the Gaza Strip, leading to heavy casualties, a serious humanitarian crisis and a spillover effect that plunged the region back into tense and volatile war. The Palestinian-Israeli issue has returned to the forefront of the diplomatic agenda.

First, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a prelude to a political process of reconciliation and detente in the Middle East. It has also curtailed the ambition by the United States to install a “Middle East version of NATO,” which was contemplated under the Trump administration, aiming to contain Iran. When the Russian-Ukrainian conflict marked its first year in February — and with no solution in sight — China took a substantive step to bring about a peaceful solution to the Saudi-Iran conflict by facilitating the resumption of diplomatic engagements between the two arch rivals.

The fact that the two countries could talk has had significant repercussions in the international community, as it shows that no matter how complex the matter or how entrenched the differences may be, solutions can be found through dialogue on an equal footing. The destiny of the Middle East can only be — and must be — determined by the people of the Middle East themselves.

The easing of tensions and the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have also led to de-escalation of the civil wars in Yemen, which helps to stabilize the situation in the Gulf and the Middle East region as a whole. Therefore, it’s not just Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also welcomed the resumption of diplomatic relations.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement in which he expressed his appreciation to China for facilitating the dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He said the rapprochement and goodwill between the two countries would help promote stability in the Gulf region. Some Saudi political commentators are of the view that while the joint agreement could not be interpreted as a pivot to China, regional players are adapting to the emerging multipolar system in the world, a fact that many in Washington are either unwilling or unable to accept.

Of course, while the international community generally hailed the reconciliation, there are countries that are less than thrilled to see the resumption of diplomatic relations and a better diplomatic environment, especially those who consider Iran to be their archenemy For example, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a social media post that the conclusion of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran indicated that Israel had failed in its efforts to establish an anti-Tehran coalition, which is a serious and dangerous development for Israel.

Some Israeli scholars have also argued that the agreement may boost Iran’s self-confidence, embolden its resolve to strengthen its regional position and improve its relations with China, while at the same time imposing restrictions on Israel’s military options and potentially reducing Iran’s incentive to return to the Iranian nuclear deal. A negative interpretation of the reconciliation by Israel could explain why Israel is bent on achieving its own strategic goals in the conflict with Hamas.

Second, the outbreak of a new round of the Israel-Hamas conflict has brought the Israeli-Palestinian issue back to the center of attention in the Middle East. The massive raid launched by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7, code-named “Al-Aqsa Floods,” and the ensuing Israeli offensive and retaliatory strikes against Hamas in Gaza altered the contours and the center of gravity in the Middle East. The world changed in one fell swoop. The Ukrainian crisis has somewhat faded from the limelight, replaced by daily updates on the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the regional spillover of the conflict. The international community is again divided between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps, and it is generally agreed that the issue has returned to center stage, with the two-state solution being the best path forward.

Unless the issue of Palestinian statehood is resolved, any fundamental guarantee of the security of Israel and the normalization of its relations with Arab countries will be elusive.

Negotiations on the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which were on the verge of a breakthrough were also put on hold by the conflict, despite being desired by the Biden administration. Such a diplomatic achievement could score points in the 2024 U.S. presidential election.     

The Israel-Hamas conflict has forced the United States to return to the Middle East, despite its earlier withdrawal. While the U.S. has so far stood firmly on the side of Israel, it has been largely unable to restrain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly hard-line policy. As retaliatory strikes in Gaza inflict increasing numbers of civilian casualties, the humanitarian disaster is only widening. The Israel-Hamas conflict will inevitably affect the global strategic interests of the United States, its international image and the reelection prospects of U.S. President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party in 2024.

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