Iranian Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council meets the Saudi Minister of State and National Security Adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, and China’s Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi, in Beijing, China, March 10, 2023. Nour News/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Lessons From China’s Role in Middle East Diplomacy

The Saudi-Iranian normalization deal brokered by China has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Regional actors had not expected China to suddenly desire a political role in the Persian Gulf. Others were skeptical of Beijing’s diplomatic capacity and skills. Few, however, were as surprised as foreign policy hands in Washington – even though it is the United States’ actions and missteps that inadvertently created both the opportunity for Beijing to mediate and the environment that compelled regional actors to sue for peace.

More – not less – than meets the eye

Despite skepticism in the West of the depth and durability of the normalization deal, Tehran and Riyadh appear to have moved at an impressive pace to implement the agreement signed in Beijing earlier in March. On April 12, only a month after the signing of the deal, the Iranian embassy in Saudi Arabia reopened its gates for the first time in seven years as an Iranian delegation arrived to inspect the premises. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh. It would be the first visit of an Iranian President to Saudi in 24 years. Raisi has reportedly accepted.

Moreover, fruits of the normalization are starting to emerge throughout the region, again, faster than many expected. (The only regional state explicitly opposed to the agreement is Israel.) The war in Yemen is now on the verge of a permanent truce with the Saudis and Houthis engaged in intense peace talks. A major prisoner exchange has already taken place with roughly 900 prisoners released. Talks are underway to release up to 15,000 prisoners. Fabrizio Carboni, the Red Cross’ regional director, said the release “gives a sense of momentum” for efforts to end the war.

This does not necessarily mean that the Yemeni conflict will be fully resolved, as the Yemenis must still come to an agreement amongst themselves on a political solution. But Saudi Arabia’s exit from the war and the lifting of the blockade are critical steps towards an intra-Yemeni political dialogue. 

Read the full piece in The Straits Times.

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