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Middle East Structure Needs a Makeover

Mar 24, 2023
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

One of the most important developments in the Middle East in decades took place on March 10. Iran and Saudi Arabia reached agreement to resume diplomatic relations after seven years. And, unexpectedly, it was China that brokered the negotiation. Among the many profound implications, the most important may be the regional security structure. Put another way, the United States can no longer monopolize the regional agenda. While it will continue to be there as one of the most important players, it’s no longer has undisputed dominance.

Jon Alterman, a leading U.S. scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that Saudi Arabia had notified the U.S. about the negotiations with Iran in Beijing. The information itself suggests that Saudi Arabia, a major player in the region, still relies in some ways on the U.S. for security — although this has become illusory, judging by realities on the ground. It is expected that the U.S. will still play important roles in major Middle East issues, including but not limited to Palestine-Israel tensions.

But China’s recent successful brokering the negotiation between Iran and Saudi Arabia does suggest some new dynamics in the region. That’s the other side of the story. First, Middle East countries, particularly Gulf countries, will attach increasing importance to their strategic autonomy. It is true that Gulf countries cannot move away from the U.S. on security, but they also realize that the U.S. is not a trustworthy security partner. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its hesitation to provide needed assistance to Gulf countries further undermines its credibility as a security provider.

Actually, the last decade had already seen a rise in self-reliance among Gulf countries. In 2011, for example, Saudi Arabia, in the name of the Gulf Cooperation Council, dispatched troops to help Bahrain pacify domestic tensions. GCC countries have been active in the Syrian issue since 2012. Saudi had also formed a coalition to launch military actions in Yemen. It has also conducted five rounds of negotiations with Iran in Iraq since 2021 on resuming diplomatic relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in the last decade demonstrated a strong trend of addressing security issues on their own — either by military or diplomatic means — with varying degrees of success.

Judging by the current trends, Gulf countries will not immediately say goodbye to U.S. security protection, though they will intentionally and understandably reduce their dependence on it. On the other hand, Gulf countries represented by Saudi Arabia will seek new approaches to address their security concerns, one of which should be negotiated detente with Iran.

Second, China will be more than ready to invest efforts to address Middle East issues. For many years, China has been a major economic partner with countries in the region but has failed to play a role in security issues in line with its economic relations. The reasons are numerous. For instance, the U.S. might not accept China’s bigger role in the region outside of the American framework. Or, China might feel that it does not have sufficient strategic resources to address the complex issues in the region.

But for whatever reason, the latest move does suggest that China is ready to invest more effort and diplomatic and economic capital to Middle East issues. After all, the Middle East is closely relevant with its export market, energy security and social security of its northwestern regions. The Middle East is also involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

The recent effort should be seen as part of China’s effort to put the Global Security Initiative into practice. In 2014 President Xi Jinping initiated new security concepts involving common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. This has been elaborated by Wang Yi and other major high-level Chinese diplomats on various occasions, and it has has finally become part of Xi’s GSI.

The Middle East, a region with a serious security deficit, begs the question whether China can put Xi’s concepts and the GSI into practice. Frequent high-level visits with Middle East countries in the last three years have strengthened the belief that mediating regional conflicts could enhance China’s image as a responsible stakeholder in the new security concepts and the GSI.

Building on the successful mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China will make more efforts for peace and security in the region in the future. It should be noted that one implication of this event should be the recasting of the region’s old security framework, which has been dominated by the United States.

China’s recent mediation signifies that the U.S. can no longer dominate agenda-setting in the region, nor can it dominate the outcomes of regional issues.

The region in recent decades has seen the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. being incapable and reluctant to address the Palestine issue and has now seen China playing a role in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is not China challenging the U.S., but the U.S. has kept making mistakes. Vali Nasr, a leading American scholar, argued 10 years ago that the U.S. needed to bring Iran into the tent, but the U.S. has failed to do that. China can mediate between the two major rivalries because China has friendly relations with both countries.

Last but not least, China’s role in the region can be expected to grow, but it’s clear that it will play the role of pushing for negotiation and promoting peace rather than dominating decision-making. As various policy papers indicate, China has no intention to fill a vacuum. Rather, it respects the people and the countries of the region and wants them to be their own masters. 


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