This appears to be a further step in the isolation of Western “liberal democracies”
David H. Rundell is a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads. Ambassador
Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the U.S. Central Command and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served for 15 years in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
Cross-posted from Other News
In 1904, Russia and Japan fought a brief war over Korea that cost both sides dearly. A year later, when they accepted American mediation to end their dispute, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a peace conference in New Hampshire. The Portsmouth Agreement settled a minor conflict, but nevertheless startled the great powers of the day. It boldly announced Washington’s emergence as an international mediator and a serious player in Far Eastern diplomacy. Something very similar took place last week when China secretly brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Seven years ago, an Iranian mob stormed and burned part of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In response, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations. Last week, these two neighbors agreed to reopen their respective embassies. This news is neither unusual nor surprising as even hostile neighbors normally maintain diplomatic relations and negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh to improve their relations had been underway for the past two years. The United States was aware of and did not object to these discussions, but it was China that brought them to a conclusion.
Both sides had something to gain. Saudi Arabia hoped to end the civil war in Yemen, which it has long regarded as a drain on its budget and a threat to national security. The current ceasefire in Yemen is holding and Riyadh would like Iran’s help in keeping it that way. Long isolated by Western sanctions, Iran has welcomed the recent renewal of diplomatic ties with Kuwait and the UAE. Tehran hoped to further reduce its isolation with improved ties to Riyadh and perhaps even deter Saudi Arabia from any rapprochement with Israel.
What Saudi Iranian rapprochement will mean for the Middle East remains to be seen. It does nothing to resolve the local grievances and elite ambitions that drive Yemen’s civil war, but it may prolong the ceasefire. Iran is unlikely to alter its strategic hostility to the United States and Israel, but it may limit its aid to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is not likely to lose its fear of a nuclear armed Iran or accept Iranian interference in Yemeni politics, but it may lift the blockade of Yemeni ports. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran may now find it easier to formally join the BRICS group of nations along with Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Much about these negotiations was not new. It was not the first time one of America’s friends in the Middle East concluded that it would be better to keep Washington in the dark about its diplomatic dealings. Israel and the Palestinians began their direct negotiations in the remote Norwegian capital precisely to avoid American attention. The Oslo Accords blossomed, and the Israeli American relationship survived.
Nor is this the first time Saudi Arabia has conducted clandestine negotiations with China. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia felt threatened by Iranian ballistic missiles, When the United States refused to supply Riyadh with similar weapons, the Saudis quietly turned to China. Washington was outraged, but the Chinese East Wind ballistic missiles have been deployed, maintained, and upgraded in Saudi Arabia for 40 years. The Saudi-American relationship survived.
And this was not the first time China has intervened decisively in the Middle East. In 2019, Iranian drones attacked the oil processing facility at Abqaiq and took half of Saudi Arabia’s oil export capacity off line. The United States did not respond militarily. That was probably wise as this could have set much of the world’s energy supply ablaze. Instead, it was China that intervened diplomatically behind closed doors.
Beijing told the Iran’s ayatollahs something like this. “You know we are your largest trading partner and one of the few that help you avoid Western sanctions. But perhaps you forgot that we also import a lot of oil from Saudi Arabia and care greatly about the price of oil. The next time you decide to destroy Saudi export capacity perhaps you should give us call first. Message received?” And there have been no more Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
What was truly noteworthy about last week’s agreement was the public announcement of China’s prominent role and the fact that negotiations took place while the Saudi foreign minister was in Moscow. This sent a message that will come to be seen a watershed moment for Chinese influence in the Middle East. While the United States and China continue to share an interest in Middle East stability, America’s reputation as the decisive power in the region was eroded. This was only possible because China and Russia no longer pose a Marxist ideological threat to the Saudi monarchy. In fact, Riyadh’s state-directed capitalism and authoritarian politics now align more closely with Beijing than with Washington.
Thirty years ago, at the beginning of a brief, bright unipolar moment, it was fashionable to accept that “the end of history” had indeed arrived. Liberal democracy and a rules-based international order had decisively defeated authoritarianism and realpolitik. America’s global economic and military hegemony was firmly in place. Western values would soon be equally unchallenged. An omnipotent West could afford to issue diktats and make mistakes.
Last week, history returned to the Middle East. For those who had not already noticed, we once again live in multipolar world defined by great power competition. Several outside powers now compete with the West for prestige, influence, and power in the region. China was able to broker this agreement in part because it maintains cordial relations with both parties. Local leaders have more diplomatic options than they did in the recent past. In a world where history has returned, a policy of “You are either with us or against us.” is probably not as viable as it once was.