Skip to main content
ALM Special

A year on, China's Saudi-Iran deal endures by virtue of low expectations

Whether China’s involvement symbolizes a rejection of US hegemony in the Middle East remains up for debate, but what matters more is the normalization of Saudi-Iranian relations that has materialized.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, hold hands with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and China's counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing Thursday, April 6, 2023 to finalize a deal that would reopen embassies, resume direct flights and restart security and trade agreements.

On March 10, 2023, amid a broader pattern of rapprochement between Middle Eastern rivals, the deadlock was broken in one of the region’s most protracted and enduring rivalries. Having severed ties in 2016 — indeed, not for the first time — Saudi Arabia and Iran normalized diplomatic relations, a surprising and remarkable feat.

Adding to the conspicuous nature of the achievement was that the deal had been brokered not by the United States, the European Union or ultimately by a regional mediator — though Oman and Iraq were instrumental in earlier negotiations — but by China, the emergent extra-regional heavyweight.

That the Saudis invited China to broker the final deal represents their wholehearted acceptance of Beijing’s growing role in the Middle East and perhaps the culmination of Beijing's carefully choreographed, decades-long balancing act between Riyadh and Tehran. Whether China’s involvement symbolizes a rejection of US hegemony in the Middle East is up for debate. What matters more, however, is the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran that materialized.

One year on, the results of restored ties are modest but hopeful. By summer 2023, both Saudi Arabia and Iran had reopened their respective embassies, a mark of significant progress given the violent circumstances under which the Saudi embassy in Tehran closed in 2016. Thus far, the two countries have even managed to weather the storm of the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza and related Houthi attacks on commercial maritime traffic in the Red Sea region.

Access the Middle East news and analysis you can trust

Join our community of Middle East readers to experience all of Al-Monitor, including 24/7 news, analyses, memos, reports and newsletters.


Only $100 per year.