On March 10th, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they had agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations in a historic deal brokered by China. This comes after almost seven years of hostilities between the nations, as they fought a proxy war in Yemen. While this is a historic development in the geo-political landscape of the Middle East, it has additional, larger implications for the balance of world superpowers on the global stage.
In 2014, Yemen became engaged in a civil war that pitted Houthi Shi’a rebels against its Sunni government. Being respective representatives of each sect of Islam, Saudi Arabia and Iran both became involved in the conflict in 2016: Iran financially and militarily backed the Houthi rebels through shipments of military supplies and Saudi Arabia housed exiled Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and bombed Houthi strongholds. Until last week, the tensions between the two nations were at an all-time high, with each nation accusing the other of supporting fringe, radical Islamic groups committed to harming one another.
U.S. President Biden negotiated a cease-fire in partnership with the U.N. in 2022 but was entirely left out of the deal on March 10th. This is in part because the U.S. currently has no diplomatic relations with Iran in the wake of failed attempts to reestablish the Iranian nuclear deal that was scrapped during the administration of former President Donald Trump. While it is obvious that these negotiations could never have succeeded under the guidance of the U.S., China’s involvement in the peace process is still a massive shock to U.S. policymakers. President Biden and his administration have made competing with China, both ideologically and economically, a policy priority, and this deal is a clear assertion by Chinese President Xi Jinping that they are attempting to emphasize their status as a global superpower.
In addition to changing the dynamics of foreign involvement in the region, this deal also has ramifications for the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel is staunchly anti-Iranian and had been hoping to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia in an ideological alliance against Iran. The new Saudi-Iran deal puts this possibility into jeopardy. By securing a potential alliance with Saudi Arabia, Israel could create a fundamentally new environment for itself in the region and take a significant step towards a resolution of the almost century-long conflict with a large majority of the Arab states. Prior to the announcement of this deal, hopes were high that this alliance would be possible due to U.S. support for Israel and long-held economic and military partnerships between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Another regional conflict this deal has implications for is the normalization of relations with Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. In a reaction to his government’s shocking brutality in the wake of the 2011 protests, and throughout the ten-year civil war that followed, many governments, including Saudi Arabia, cut off all relations with the Assad regime. During the war, Iran backed Assad while Saudi Arabia supported the many rebel groups of the opposition. With the signing of this deal, Saudi Arabia has begun talks with Syrian intelligence officials about reopening its embassy in Damascus and reestablishing economic and diplomatic relations with the nation. The U.S., who is traditionally a close ally to Saudi Arabia, has imposed sanctions against the Assad regime and has no plans to lift them, which creates a complicated economic situation for the region. Saudi Arabia potentially going against this U.S.-led precedent in combination with China’s leading role in negotiating the deal initially shows the growing influence of other superpowers and the possible waning presence of the U.S. in the Middle East.
While the Biden administration has voiced nothing but support for reestablishing diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it nevertheless represents the changing balance of global superpowers. If the U.S. wants to restore its standing on the world stage, it needs to learn from China’s success in these negotiations and find a way to reassert its political and economic influence in the Middle East.