As it becomes an increasingly influential power in the Middle East, brokering a renewal of diplomatic relations between long-term rivals could threaten both U.S. diplomatic strength in the Middle East and further endanger Israel.
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China is becoming an increasingly influential power in the Middle East, brokering a renewal of diplomatic relations between long-term rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia that could threaten both U.S. diplomatic strength in the Middle East and further endanger Israel.
The history of Saudi-Iran relations has been marked by conflicts and rivalries, as the two countries have long vied for power and influence in the Middle East. The two largest countries in the region are located just across the Persian Gulf from each other. There also are key demographic differences: Saudis are ethnic Arabs and adhere to Sunni Islam; Iranians are Persian and followers of Shi’a Islam.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran deteriorated following the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. The two countries often find themselves on opposing sides in regional proxy wars, with Yemen being the most recent example. Saudi Arabia has been often attacked by the Iranian-backed rebels in neighboring Yemen—firing hundreds of missiles and armed drones into Saudi Arabia, and killing dozens of civilians.
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons further strained relations between the two regional foes. A major concern about Iran possessing nuclear weapons, beyond its direct threat to Israel, is the fear of a regional nuclear arms race. In December, the Saudi foreign minister stated: “If Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off.” Egypt and Turkey are often cited as regional nations that could seek nukes, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Algeria.
Last August, the Chinese president made his first international trip since 2020—to Saudi Arabia. The visit was seen as a sign of waning American influence in the region. The Biden Administration insisted that the United States was “not going anywhere” after President Joe Biden met with the Saudis the previous month. A joint statement following the president’s visit dealt with the need to deter Iran’s interference in “the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through its armed proxies and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region.”
The Saudi monarchy holds concerns about the U.S. directing its diplomatic and military strategy to Asia at the expense of its Middle East efforts to stabilize the region. The Saudis “hoped that the United States would protect it, but the Americans turned out to be hesitant, following the 2019 unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAVs launched against oil tankers and oil facilities,” stated a Tel Aviv University history professor.
China is seen as filling a void left by the United States with America’s focus on containing China’s expansion in Asia. China only recently closed a jet-fighter deal with the UAE. The driver for this agreement was a delay by the United States to sell F-35s. China also sold weapons to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco and Algeria.
The Chinese government is well-positioned to play a strategic role in the region following expanding relations with Persian Gulf countries. China signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran in 2021, and a year later followed up with a six-year strategic deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
Points to consider
Iran’s increasing power is an alarming threat to Israel.
Iran’s international terrorism continuously targets Israel. Its government has a long record of fueling conflict in the Middle East by backing groups hostile to Israel: Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria. Nuclear weapons would provide Iran with cover so it can deepen its regional expansion under the threat of ‘nuclear blackmail.’ Iran is closing in on a nuclear capability, and also is directly attacking Israel through cyberwarfare and is seeking to deepen divides in Israeli society by swaying Israeli Arabs to their cause. Iran knows that one direct nuclear-tipped missile strike against Israel would destroy the world’s only Jewish state.
China’s power is expanding in the Middle East.
China’s role in the Middle East has grown significantly in recent years, as the country seeks to expand its influence and economic ties in the region. China is increasingly viewed as a diplomatic broker, positioning itself as a mediator between rivals. Its deepening relationships with governments have largely been through energy, infrastructure and military support and investment. China is the world’s largest importer of oil and gas, and the Middle East is a major supplier of these resources. It has invested heavily in the region and has long-term contracts to import oil and gas from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. China has also constructed ports, railways and highways in nations around the world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The Asian nation also engages in joint military exercises and sells military equipment, often diminishing U.S. relations.
Saudi-Israeli relations can still improve.
A recent report reveals what the Saudis seek from America in exchange for ties with Israel: U.S. security assurances and support in building its own civilian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia and Israel only recently began to establish ties with each other, largely because of their shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Six years ago, an Israeli government minister revealed that Israel was covertly communicating with the Saudis and other Gulf nations, mainly on intelligence related to Iran. Today, the Gulf nations of the UAE and Bahrain are members of the Abraham Accords. As part of normalization talks between the Saudis and Israelis, the Saudis opened their airspace to all Israeli flights. Warming relations between the Saudis and Iranians will not necessarily impact the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords, but it does increase doubts.
The Abraham Accords remain the key to regional peace and stability.
Israel is engaging four more Muslim nations to expand the Abraham Accords: Mauritania, Somalia, Niger and Indonesia—the most populous Muslim nation. The North African and Asian nations are not immediate neighbors of Israel but their inclusion would strengthen the Jewish state’s relations with Islamic countries. The growth of the Accords also serves as a potential counterweight to Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, allows for economic development and brings different nationalities together for peaceful purposes. Despite the potential ramifications of stronger ties between the Saudis and Iranians, experts do not believe that there will be negative ramifications between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. This is one regional reality that is not expected to change.