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Irina Slav

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The History And Significance Of An Iran-Saudi Arabia Détente

  • Earlier this year, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met in Beijing in what was hailed as a historic development for the Middle East and the world.
  • The two countries have long been divided by a religious schism, with Iran being seen as the main Shia power in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia as the leading Sunni power.
  • The role of China in this rapprochement will be seen as a major geopolitical win in Beijing and could have negative influences on U.S. influence in the region.

Earlier this year, an event of historic proportions took place in Beijing. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met in the Chinese capital and agreed to work on restoring relations between the two Middle Eastern giants.

Brokered by China, the agreement could see the end of a rift that began more than seven years ago, led to the war in Yemen that caused the gravest humanitarian crisis in modern times, and kept the religions and geopolitical cauldron that is the Middle East bubbling.

With the restoration of diplomatic relations and the forging of closer ties, that cauldron could cool off. And this will make it much easier to do business in the Middle East.

Historically, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been less than friendly for the most part. From the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s, which saw the country stop being a kingdom and which naturally did not sit well with Riyadh, to the Iran-Iraq war, in which Riyadh supported Iraq, bilateral relations have been fraught with opposing interests.

There was some thawing in the 1990s when the then-Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited Iran for an Islamic summit in what was the first high-ranking Saudi state visit to Iran since 1979.

The good times continued until the early 2000s, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq tipped the political influence scales there towards pro-Iranian Shi’tes, and Lebanon turned into an arena where Saudi Arabia and Iran measured their respective clout.

Tensions continued growing in the following years amid the so-called Arab Spring uprising, often involving Shi’ite groups in Sunni-dominated states and the war in Syria. The rift culminated in the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia, for which Iran’s Supreme Ruler vowed “divine vengeance”.

This background highlights the significance of the China-brokered talks that turned into action quite fast. The two said they would hasten to reopen their respective embassies and, indeed, last week, the two confirmed the reopening will take place ‘within days”.

Meanwhile, as foreign countries rush to evacuate their citizens from renewed violence in Sudan, Reuters reported that the Saudi Navy had saved several Iranian citizens in what it saw as the latest sign that the thawing of the ice between Riyadh and Tehran is genuine and advancing fast.

So, the détente is happening, and Iran has invited the Saudi king to visit soon. This means that the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East are changing, and that is not good news for the West, notably the United States.

Long considered a guarantor of security for the Kingdom—it was part of the original petrodollar deal—now the U.S. has all but fallen from grace with Riyadh, and the latter, in the face of Crown Prince Mohammed, is not too shy to show it. It might have had something to do with President Biden’s vow to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state.

In any case, the fact that China brokered the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran has implications for the future of both the Middle East and China—and the rest of the world. And it’s not only because of the Middle East’s vast oil wealth. It’s also because of its mineral wealth.

China has expressed an active interest in taking part in the development of Saudi Arabia’s considerable metals and minerals reserves. It is already actively taking part in the development of Iran’s oil and gas reserves. China wants to do business with both countries, and it has reached the quite obvious conclusion that this would be easier if they were not in a permanent state of a cold-going-on-hot war.

China already dominates much of the global critical mineral supply chain. It is already the world’s biggest oil importer. But Beijing probably sees no reason not to expand this domination further, especially as the West attempts to—extremely belatedly—boost its critical mineral self-sufficiency and shakes a finger at China for its already pretty overwhelming dominance of the sector.

Yet China is also scoring geopolitical points on the global stage. While the U.S. presence in the Middle East has tended to be overwhelmingly military, China convinced the Saudis and the Iranians to make peace without a single soldier. While the U.S. has clear friends and enemies in the region, China appears willing to work with everyone.


This impression is being met with suspicion in the West and praise outside the West as it increasingly becomes clear that the West’s attitudes and sentiments are not representative of the whole world. China is quite aware of that.

It is not coincidental that there is so much talk about a transition to multipolarity. It is also not coincidental that Saudi Arabia is considering joining BRICS, along with OPEC pal UAE. And it is certainly not a coincidence that international trade in yuan and other non-dollar currencies is on the rise. We might be witnessing a global geopolitical shift to a new order that will be dominated by China. The deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia could well be a step in that direction.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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