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China’s global brokerage may reshape Middle East relations

The endless war in Yemen, which has devastated one of the poorest countries on the planet, should be the first litmus test for China's mediating capacity between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran Saudi

The agreement brokered by Wang Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat, between his Saudi and Iranian colleagues is a great leap forward for Beijing’s superpower status in a region that is key to its oil and gas supplies — and a slap in the face for Washington. 

China under President Xi Jinping has become the main economic competitor to America worldwide, but never had it risked its  weight in a political stake, such as giving international legitimacy to Iran, which the United States and many in the West view as a pariah state. 

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman gave precedence to OPEC+ over NATO when he refused to increase oil production at the behest of US President Joe Biden. The China-brokered peace process with Iran came as the next step in the general “dis-alignment” of a number of traditionally pro-Western global south states. Many of them declined to vote for the resolution against Russia at the UN.  

As for Iran, which provides the Russian military with killer drones,  it is comforted in its status as a key member in the iron-clad coalition of illiberal states. China has now extended its influence over the Islamic Republic — right after President Ebrahim Raisi’s Feb. 14 visit to Beijing and subsequent Iranian inclusion in the Road and Belt initiative to help its Western embargoed economy. 

Finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, hitherto rather isolated diplomatically and facing punishing Western sanctions, got a remarkable international boost, while the Middle East increasingly becomes a secondary front in his confrontation against the West in addition to the battle for Ukraine.

And Israel's extreme-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might look up even more to his longtime friend in Moscow to provide the Jewish state with the same kind of deterrence against Iranian missiles launched from Syria that Beijing now offers Riyadh against the military threat across the Persian Gulf.  

Last but not least, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, facing elections in mid-May, finds himself in dire straits after the collapse of the Turkish lira and the devastating political aftermath of terrible earthquakes. He is distancing from the West while buying Russian S-400 ground-air missile systems and barring Sweden and Finland from joining NATO unless they take anti-Kurdish measures. 

The many temblors of the Beijing-brokered agreement between Riyadh and Tehran will be felt in the whole MENA region. But can they be a game-changer for now, while the traditionally influential US and the EU look at best impotent, at worst like accomplices of the current mayhem? 

The endless war in Yemen, which has devastated one of the poorest countries on the planet, should be the first litmus test for China's mediating capacity, as both its new Saudi and Iranian protégés are fueling its battles. Washington can deliver neither Teheran nor its Houthi surrogates to the negotiating table, while Beijing should be able to. Beyond its financial means, does China have the actual military clout to implement a ceasefire on the ground? It built a formidable navy base in nearby Djibouti, but is it willing to send boots on the ground, or are such stakes too high for the present global balance of power with the West?  

A parallel to the dire Yemeni situation can be found in war-torn Syria — another unfortunate sequel of the Arab Springs of 2011. Since the summer of 2013, when President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron reneged on their commitment to strike at the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, the West has had minimal clout. While the Assad regime is steadily being brought back by its Arab counterparts on the regional scene, and a meeting with Erdogan is announced, China (with Russian and Syrian allies on the ground) has the unique capacity to invest significant amounts of hard currency.  

Whether Beijing dares take the plunge will show the world if Xi can supersede the US-backed Abraham Accords. The Middle East could become a new playing field for Beijing's worldwide confrontation with the West, on top of the crucial Taiwan Strait.   

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