In an unexpected development, China has brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been rivals in the Middle East for decades. Despite the United States being the central actors in the region for the past three-quarters of a century, China has suddenly transformed itself into a new power player in the Middle East. The decision to reopen embassies that were closed in 2016 represents only a first step, and it is not clear how far the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will go. While President Biden’s White House has publicly welcomed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and expressed no overt concern about Beijing’s part in bringing the two back together, independent analysts suggest that too much is being made of the breakthrough, and it remains unclear how far the peace deal will go.
The key to the agreement, according to what the Saudis told the Americans, was a commitment by Iran to stop further attacks on Saudi Arabia and curtail support for militant groups that have targeted the kingdom. Iran and Saudi Arabia have effectively fought a devastating proxy war in Yemen, where Houthi rebels aligned with Tehran battled Saudi forces for eight years. A truce negotiated with the support of the United Nations and the Biden administration last year largely halted hostilities. The U.N. estimated early last year that more than 377,000 people had died during the war from violence, starvation or disease. At the same time, the Houthis have fired hundreds of missiles and armed drones at Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia had sought a suspension of hostilities with Iran for years, first through talks held in Baghdad that eventually went nowhere. Biden administration officials said the Saudis briefed them about the discussions in Beijing, but the Americans expressed skepticism that Iran will live up to its new commitments.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia who had strong ties with President Donald J. Trump and has helped secure $2 billion in financing for the investment firm set up by Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, has been playing an intricate diplomatic game since Mr. Biden came to office. Mr. Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state for orchestrating the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post living in the United States. But he reluctantly agreed to visit the kingdom last year as he was seeking to lower gas prices that had been elevated in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Chinese Century?
In trying to smooth over relations with the Saudis, Mr. Biden endured blistering criticism for a much-publicized fist bump with the crown prince, who was determined by the C.I.A. to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment. But Mr. Biden and his team were infuriated when, in their view, the Saudis later breached the unannounced agreement reached during that visit and curbed oil production last fall to keep the price of gas elevated. In that instance, the U.S. officials believed Prince Mohammed was siding with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Mr. Biden threatened unspecified “consequences,” only to back off without imposing any.
Now the crown prince is turning to the Chinese. “Some folks in the Gulf clearly see this as the Chinese century,” said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They may not want to see the United States go, but they see the writing on the wall, and they are hedging their bets.”