This piece was co-written by Khalid Aljabri.
While U.S. President Joe Biden’s Middle East team was focused on normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations, China delivered the most significant regional development since the Abraham Accords: a deal to end seven years of Saudi-Iranian estrangement. The normalization agreement signed last week by Riyadh and Tehran is noteworthy not only because of its potential positive repercussions in the region—from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen—but also because of China’s leading role, and the United States’ absence, in the diplomacy that led to it.
Washington has long feared growing Chinese influence in the Middle East, imagining that a U.S. military withdrawal would create geopolitical vacuums that China would fill. But the relevant void was not a military one, created by U.S. troop withdrawals; it was the diplomatic vacuum left by a foreign policy that led with the military and made diplomacy all too often an afterthought.
The deal represents a win for Beijing. By mediating de-escalation between two archenemies and major regional oil producers, it has both helped secure the energy supply it needs and burnished its credentials as a trusted broker in a region burdened by conflicts, something Washington could not do. Chinese success was possible largely because of U.S. strategic missteps: a self-defeating policy that paired pressure on Iran with supplication to Saudi Arabia helped China emerge as one of few major powers with clout over and trust with both of these states.
Yet Washington does deserve some credit for the agreement—if not the kind of credit it would want to claim. In inadvertent ways, its conflicted approach to the region spurred Saudi Arabia’s shift from confrontation toward diplomacy with Iran and thereby opened the way to Chinese mediation. As long as U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia believed they had carte blanche from Washington, they had little interest in regional diplomacy. Once Riyadh believed that the carte blanche had been withdrawn, diplomacy became their best option.
Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.