Observations of an expat: Shifting playing field

The diplomatic playing field has shifted this week. The cause is China’s successful brokering of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Middle East arch-enemies and regional super powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the fact that new embassies will appear in Riyadh and Tehran does not mean that all will now be sweetness and light. Deep-seated differences remain between the founts of Sunni Islam and the world’s Shi-ites. But there is no doubt that jaw jaw is better than the undeclared war that has existed in the Gulf region for decades.

The biggest regional winner is Saudi Arabia. Iran has been sniping away at the kingdom’s oil and communications infrastructure and backing Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The eight-year Yemeni civil war has cost an estimated 300,000 lives; badly tarnished Saudi Arabia’s international reputation and drained the treasury. If diplomatic communications can shift the Iranian position on Yemen then it will enable Crown Prince to focus more on his economic plans as well as improving his platform on the world stage.

A definite loser in the current shift is Israel. Jerusalem’s implacable enemy is Iran. The Iranians support Hezbollah and Hamas and are on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon which they say would be an existential threat to their existence.  Maintaining tensions between Arabs and Persians was a key element in Jerusalem’s divide and conquer diplomacy in the Persian Gulf.

The biggest loser, however, is the US. The biggest winner is China.  From 1945 to 1990 there were two super powers who competed for dominance on the world stage—America and the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War the United States has been the go-to nation for any government seeking support in a diplomatic struggle.

This week’s Iran-Saudi deal has ended Washington’s solitary role. Beijing has proven that it has the diplomatic skills and—more importantly—the leverage, to resolve one of the world’s most difficult problems. Improving relations between Tehran and Riyadh was beyond the abilities of the State Department simply because America’s abysmal relations with Tehran meant it had no diplomatic leverage over Iran.

On top of that, relations with Saudi Arabia have been souring since the election of Joe Biden. He has made it his business to attack the kingdom’s human rights record and its war in Yemen. At the same time, America’s renewed emphasis on economic security and the concomitant boost in domestically-produced oil and gas has lessened its dependence on Gulf fossil fuels. Buying less Saudi fuel means less influence over its policies.

China, on the other hand, has replaced the US as Saudi Arabia’s number one trading partner. Iran is another of Beijing’s major sources for oil and gas and the Chinese have co-developed several energy projects with Iran. Iran is considered an important rail and shipping link in China’s Belt-Road initiative and in March 2021, Beijing and Tehran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement covering political, economic and strategic issues.

The US is not a total has-been in the Middle East. The disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan and Iraq have not worked in its favour. Neither has its failure to positively intervene in the Syrian civil war. But Washington still has its de facto ally Israel as well as de jure ally Turkey and close relations with Egypt and Jordan. It also has 10,000 troops and a major airbase in Qatar as well as the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and patrolling the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Arabian Sea.

However, America’s political pull in the region has suffered a severe setback in the region with Beijing’s diplomatic coup.  In fact, the setback has been more than regional. China has proven itself to be a powerful and reliable go-to partner for solving your problems wherever you are in the world.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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2 Comments

  • Mark Frankel 19th Mar '23 - 8:01am

    This is a bit too negative. Nobody loses from peace-building. Of course, a rapproachment between Iran and Saudi Arabia poses challenges for Western interests but it is better to have opportunities of this kind than the opposite.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Mar '23 - 3:43pm

    The Middle East seems to share with China a devaluation of human rights, something the western world rightly values highly. Perhaps the best we can do is to continue to demonstrate our commitment to them. This is going to be a hard compromise. There is a saying that the devil has all the best tunes.

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