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After the Saudi-Iran agreement, has West Asia entered a de-Americanised era?

China’s state councillor Qin Gang with Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Beijing (left) and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan (right) (Photo: @SpokespersonCHN/Twitter)

The agreement announced in Beijing on 10 March between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties after a seven-year estrangement marks the first period in forty years when there is no ongoing conflict in any part of West Asia and North Africa.

During the last few years, there has instead, been a remarkable diplomatic churn across the region – with new engagements, new players and new alignments – which have not involved the regional hegemon, the US. Besides the Saudi-Iran dialogue, Turkey has reached out to former rivals – the Hossein Amir-Abdollahian  UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have set up an economic and political cooperation platform, while Egypt itself has become active in pursuing ties with African countries in the Horn of Africa and East Africa.

In terms of the Saudi-Iran agreement, the two Gulf neighbours will reopen their embassies at ambassadorial level within two months. They have also agreed to shape their ties on the basis of the 1998 agreement relating to economic, cultural and technological ties, and the 2001 security cooperation agreement.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, has said that the kingdom “hoped to open a new chapter with Iran and bolster cooperation that would consolidate security and stability and push forward development and prosperity” not just for the two countries but for the entire region. The agreement has been welcomed across West Asia and by most foreign offices in Asia and Europe; even the US State Department has given it a positive response.

The dramatic announcement of this “tripartite agreement”, which has China as its guarantor, has surprised policy-makers and commentators, as it marks China’s first diplomatic foray in the politics of the troubled region. Again, most western observers had taken the long-term rivalry between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic for granted. In fact, this had been the basis for the US-Israeli calculus to expand the so-called Abraham Accords by including Saudi Arabia in the anti-Iran coalition without conceding anything to Palestinian aspirations.

Now, there is an ongoing scramble in chancelleries and academia to take a fresh look at the West Asian security scenario – one that accommodates the Saudi-Iran engagement, places China at the centre of regional politics and economics, and promises – for the first time in over four decades – the prospect of a peaceful region, where diplomacy and economic cooperation reign supreme.

West Asian security scenario

Since 1980, in West Asia every decade has been defined by a raging conflict. The 1980s, in response to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, witnessed the Iran-Iraq war and the “global jihad” in Afghanistan. These conflicts had numerous countries playing a behind-the-scenes role to prolong the wars and serve their interests.

These conflicts bled into the 1990s: propelled by hubris (and miscalculation), the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, saw in the occupation of Kuwait a just reward for the sacrifices made by the Iraqi people to stem the tide of the Iranian revolution. This triggered the first Gulf War in 1991, the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces, the decade-long sanctions-inspections regime, the no-fly zones over Iraq, and the US-led “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran.

The “global jihad” in Afghanistan had its own unexpected consequences: as the US turned away from this obscure theatre of Cold War conflicts, Afghanistan became the arena for the emergence of a local extremist group, the Taliban, and, from 1996, witnessed its affiliation with the transnational extremist group, Al Qaeda that had emerged triumphant from the jihad of the previous decade. Al Qaeda used its Afghan sanctuary to prepare for its assault on the “far enemy”, the US, that had itself spawned this lethal grouping, with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, against its Cold War foe.

The Al Qaeda attack on the US homeland on 9/11 and the subsequent US-led “Global War on Terror” defined West Asian politics through the 2000s. Stung with fury, the US unleashed its full military might on Afghanistan and Iraq, though the latter had no involvement with the 9/11 attacks. The US’ two-decade long wars in these West Asian theatres provided no strategic advantage to the Americans – instead, it spawned the virus of sectarianism in Iraq and created a new organisation committed to extremist violence.

These bled into the next decade: the 2000s witnessed the fury of sectarian conflict in Iraq that divided the Islamic world into warring camps as also the lethal rage of a new transnational extremist group that emerged from this sectarian divide – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In the second decade of the new century, West Asia not only provided the arena for Islam’s primeval feuds, but it also unleashed a few basis for war – the demand for wide-ranging reform unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings led the Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to confront the threat from political Islam and the attendant popular participation in governance. They mobilised domestic and regional support through the demonisation of Iran for its sectarian agenda and hegemonic designs and confronted it in the arenas of its influence – Syria and Yemen. Thus, these two West Asian nations now became the theatres for murderous fraternal violence that raged through most of the decade.

Towards engagement and accord

We now know that conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq caused a half a million deaths during US occupation over the last two decades. The occupation also witnessed gratuitous violence by the occupation forces engendered by fear and hate – the criminal conduct at Abu Ghraib and mindless killings of ordinary people by frightened foreign soldiers, thousands of whom returned home permanently traumatised by their own villainy and abuse.

At the heart of West Asian conflicts was the United States. While the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was part of ongoing Cold War confrontations, the wars of the next three decades were the product of the hubris of the unchallenged hyperpower that was flush with state-of-the-art weaponry which increasingly distanced the soldier from his or her target, thus replaying the technological divide between western militaries and native armies in the colonial period.

The hyperpower was not a neutral presence – the US was animated by two deep emotive responses to the region: visceral hatred for Iran and deep affection for Israel. These approaches became an integral part of the US’ domestic politics, making it impossible for any president to contemplate a new approach to the region.

Donald Trump pandered to both these wellsprings of US policy with vigour and enthusiasm. He also garnered sections of the GCC monarchies to his cabal: as Saudi Arabia and the UAE cheered from the sidelines, Trump manufactured numerous occasions to provoke Iran – naval skirmishes in the Gulf waters, periodic attacks on Iranian targets in Iraq and Syria, and finally the public assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. The US ally Israel complemented the aggressiveness of its senior partner with attacks in Syria and Iraq and assassinations of Iranian scientists in Iran itself.

How did US hegemony wither away? It was apparent to the US’ Gulf allies that, for all its bravado, their partner had no appetite for a serious regional conflict. GCC policy-makers concluded that the Americans were not credible regional security-providers and, indeed, could not be relied to come to the aid of their regional allies when their security was threatened.

Their analyses went back a decade: they recalled the cavalier “pivot” to the East to confront China in the West Pacific; this was seen as an abandonment of the US’ commitments to West Asian security. The Obama administration had also failed to protect the Hosni Mubarak regime in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, though Mubarak had been a longstanding ally of the US. In fact, the administration poured salt into GCC wounds by initiating negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, without any consultations with regional leaders. The engagement culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016; it eased sanctions on Iran and created the basis for freedom of action in the region by the Islamic Republic.

Though Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions on Iran, the president signally failed to protect Saudi interests when Iranian proxies attacked its oil facilities in 2019 and stopped the production of half its oil for a week. This increasing disenchantment with the US as a security-guarantor culminated in the ignominious US withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 by the Biden administration – an obvious abandonment of an old ally.

Throughout his election campaign and in the early months of his presidency, Biden affirmed his disengagement from West Asia, even as he referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state, refused to engage with its crown prince, criticised the war in Yemen, and did not provide the kingdom with weapons for this war.

Thus, the stage was set for the kingdom to look at new policy options and new partners to serve its interests.

Run-up to the Beijing accord

By 2021, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been the effective head of his country’s political, economic and social affairs for nearly six years. He had stamped his authority over all aspects of national governance. He had committed the kingdom to radical socio-economic and cultural transformation through the “Vision 2030”. He had built a solid base of support among the country’s youth – over 50% of the national population – with dilution of the country’s Wahhabi ethos and norms and robust appeals to Saudi nationalism, and had liberalised public spaces to allow gender-mixing, free movement for women, and opportunities for leisure and entertainment.

But he also embroiled Saudi Arabia in war in Yemen from March 2015. Expecting the Yemeni Houthis to quickly succumb the kingdom’s relentless bombings, the crown prince saw with concern that, while the country was devastated, the Houthis continued to control the capital, the port of Hodeidah and large swathes of the countryside; more seriously, they refused to surrender either their arms or their aspirations to re-emerge as legitimate role-players in their country.

The war cost the kingdom several billion dollars every month, draining valuable resources from the “Vision” agenda. The destruction wreaked in Yemen also discredited the country in global public opinion, encouraging scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record at home and in Yemen. Periodic missile and drone attacks by the Houthis on Saudi targets also demoralised the civilian population. Saudi Arabia’s principal interest now became to end the war in Yemen, without loss of face or its core strategic agenda. It needed to work with Iran on this, given that the latter was the principal benefactor and weapons-supplier for the Houthis.

As the US lost credibility as the regional security-provider, what

several western commentators failed to note was that Saudi Arabia had also begun to assert strategic autonomy and adopt policy positions in its own interest, without looking over its shoulder at US views or concerns. As Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr have pointed out in Foreign Affairs, the kingdom now saw itself “not as a security vassal of the United States but as a regional power capable of playing an independent role in world politics”.

Thus, it refused to align itself with the US against Russia in the Ukraine war, nor did it accept Biden’s plea, in July last year, to increase oil production to bring down prices. It also did not join the US-led coalition of Israel and the Arab states ranged against Iran, or ally with the US in confronting China in a new Cold War. The kingdom has signalled that it will maintain ties with the US, but on its own terms; these will include defence purchases, buying of US equipment, machinery and technology, and cooperation with the US on matters of mutual interest. Saudi Arabia, as Jon Alterman has noted, “has agency over its own future”.

Iran, on its part, was devastated by the US sanctions that had shattered its economy and engendered widespread national discontent. This was expressed periodically through national agitations that the government had to put down with harsh and coercive measures. In the region itself, Tehran also saw that the US was building a regionwide coalition with Israel and the Arab states under the rubric of the so-called Abraham Accords: in August 2020, the UAE had normalised ties with Israel, followed quickly by Bahrain and later by Morocco and Sudan. This was based on highlighting the security threat from Iran; hence, it only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia too joined the grouping.

Thus, by early 2021, both Saudi Arabia and Iran had strong compulsions to engage with each other.

At this point, Iraq, under Prime Minster Mustafa al-Kadhimi, stepped forward as the facilitator of dialogue between the Gulf neighbours. Five rounds of discussions took place in Baghdad in 2021-22 at the level of intelligence officers, as also three rounds in Oman. Their focus was on regional security. A sixth round could not take place in Baghdad as Iran sought an economic package to ease its sanctions burden; Saudi Arabia however insisted that the focus remain on security.

According to the commentator Banafsheh Keynoush of Middle East Institute (MEI), Iran is believed to have used this lull to engage with Egypt and Jordan and obtain assurances that they would not join a regional coalition against Iran. In June, al-Kadhimi succeeded in obtaining Iranian support for a truce in Yemen, which remains in place. In August, Iran informed the European Union of its readiness to renew discussions on the nuclear agreement.

From September 2022, Iran was overwhelmed with the anti-hijab agitations, even as it continued it nuclear enrichment programme, signalling to western governments that their efforts to obtain regime change was not going to be successful. By November, Iran had succeeded in controlling the nationwide demonstrations.

The reopening of dialogue was facilitated by three developments taking place in quick succession: the visit of President Xi Jinping to Riyadh in December when the Saudi crown prince sought a revival of the discussions with Iran under Chinese auspices. This was followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries in Amman on the sidelines of the Baghdad II conference of regional states; it was clinched by the visit to Beijing in February of the Iranian president.

Talks in Beijing began on 6 March: the Iranian side was led by Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and a close confidant of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; the Saudi side was led by Minister of State and National Security Adviser, Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban. After five days of substantial discussions, the agreement was announced on 10 March.

China in West Asia

China’s principal bond with West Asia is its import of oil. It is the largest trade partner of Saudi Arabia and the largest buyer of Saudi crude, with oil imports accounting for nearly half of the $87.3 billion bilateral trade in 2021. In 2022, Saudi Arabia imported more than $30 billion worth of goods from China, with trade being dominated by technological and communications equipment.

Again, in 2022, Sino-Iranian trade amounted to $15.8 billion, with China’s exports increasing by 14% to $9.44 billion. Despite US sanctions, Iran remains one of the major oil exporters to China: Iran saw an increase in exports in the last two months of 2022, on higher shipments to China and Venezuela; according to analysts, Tehran has increased oil exports to more than 1.2 million barrels per day.

China is also a major investor in the region: between 2005-2022, China’s overall investment in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region was $273 billion; the bulk of these investments were in Saudi Arabia, about $43.5 billion.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are also important role-players in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Now, following the agreement, Saudi oil reserves and its ports on coastline of the Gulf can be linked with Iran and, using a multimodal transportation corridor, they can connect with China. These linkages will enable China to bypass the Hormuz and Malacca, which are the principal routes for Chinese energy and trade shipments between China and the Gulf, and supplement the existing 3200-km railway link from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, to Tehran.

As the Indian scholar, Sujata Ashwarya has said, China “has integrated the BRI into the GCC countries’ development strategies for infrastructure growth and non-oil expansion, including Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030”. She has pointed out that the kingdom is the largest recipient of China’s BRI investments in the first half of 2022 at $5.5 billion.

Besides valuable economic and logistical connectivity, China has built substantial political links with the region as well. Last year, China formally concluded the 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Iran which has political, security, energy, economic and logistical connectivity components valued at $400 billion. In line with this, in March this year, China and Russia participated in their fourth naval exercise with Iran since 2019, projecting a show of collective force against western powers in the region. Iranian sources have described this naval cooperation as “a new centre for maritime security”.

In December 2022, President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh and participated in three summits – bilateral, the GCC and the Arab League. Thus, its footprint extended beyond the Gulf to rest of West Asia: on 24 March, Egypt announced Chinese entities would be investing $2 billion to build a cast iron pipe and steel production facility in the Suez Canal zone.

China also has close economic relations with Israel: in September 2021, the $1.7 billion transportation and industrial centre was inaugurated at Haifa port; it will be operated by Shanghai International Port. Israel’s transport minister noted that the port would promote “realisation of opportunities and a genuine contribution [to building ties with] our neighbours in the Middle East”.

In West Asia, China has one significant advantage that the US does not have – it has close ties with all regional states. It has therefore been able to take advantage of the region’s war fatigue and bring estranged countries together through diplomacy – something the US is not capable of doing. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out in Washington Post, the US has lost the “flexibility and suppleness” that would enable a diplomatic engagement with regional powers in contention with each other; Washington’s rigid postures and “grand moral declarations”, Zakaria says, evoke “an aging empire” that has little sense of the real world around it.

By facilitating the Saudi-Iran agreement and injecting itself as its guarantor, what China has done is to fill the diplomatic vacuum left by the US that has for several decades dealt with regional issues largely through military means.

Challenges to regional peace

Following the agreement, there have been several positive developments: the Saudi finance minister has said his country is looking at early investments in the Iranian economy. There are indications that Bahrain will establish diplomatic ties with Iran shortly (the last member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to do so). The Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers have had two telephonic conversations on taking ties forward. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to visit Riyadh very soon. It has been announced that China would be hosting an Iran-GCC conclave in Beijing in two months.

Saudi Arabia has also announced the establishment of diplomatic ties with Syria, joining other GCC countries that already have embassies in Damascus. Finally, on 28 March, the Saudi crown prince had a telephonic conversation with President Xi Jinping; the Saudi foreign office said he expressed his country’s appreciation for China’s support for the development of “good neighbourly relations” between the Gulf countries.

However, while the agreement has restored bilateral engagement and improved the regional security climate, the settlement of outstanding differences is fraught with challenges.

The Saudi-Iran divide is now more than a decade old and includes differences that have security and sectarian dimensions, amidst deep-seated rivalries relating to regional partners, indeed, even the shape of regional security arrangements themselves. These differences, due to the near-total absence of mutual confidence and trust, have even acquired the shape of “existential” threats. Obviously, the path of negotiations ahead will be thorny and deeply contentious, with periodic setbacks and even acrimony.

Yemen will be an immediate challenge. Even if Iran were to reduce its military support to the Houthis (not likely in the immediate future), the principal problem before the Saudis will remain: how to accommodate the marginalised Houthis in the national political and economic mainstream? This was the original issue that had led to six wars by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on Houthi militants in the 2000s, and later caused the Saudi military intervention in March 2015.

Since then, Yemen has become a broken state, riven with tribal, sectarian, geographical and military faultlines, and has no leadership that carries credibility among its diverse factions. The scenario has been complicated by the UAE pursuing its own geopolitical adventures – taking control of Yemen’s ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, having bases on the strategically important island of Perim in the Bab al-Mandab and Socotra island.

Bringing stability to this war-torn land and ensuring its unity calls for statesmanship and commitment that have not been apparent for several years. Even if Saudi Arabia and Iran work in close harmony – a tall order, given their recent history – peace in Yemen is still quite far away.

The same is true of Syria. Though there is no ongoing military conflict between the government and rebel militants, a decade of war has resolved none of the outstanding issues; in fact, new problems have emerged.

Even if the regime-change project has failed, there remains the matter of Turkey’s military presence deep inside Syrian territory across the northern border and its ongoing effort to disrupt Kurdish aspirations for their ‘Rojava’ (Homeland). Will the Kurds accept the Russian suggestion that their destiny lies in a unified Syrian state? Will Turkey accept this solution? And, what of the 900 US soldiers that are spread across the northeast, ostensibly to protect Kurdish interests?

Finally, even if some solution is found for the Kurdish problem, we still have the 50,000-strong Hayat Tahreer al-Sham in Idlib, the successor of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra that has not accepted Turkish control? These extremists are also not likely to accommodate themselves into Al Assad’s Syrian order. War on them may be the only answer.

Though the Beijing agreement has been touted as a “tripartite” accord, there is considerable uncertainty about what role China will play in promoting regional harmony. Linked with this is whether China is equipped to play an activist role to resolve deep regional differences. As of now, we can expect, in general terms, that China will pursue a “quasi-mediation” role, ie, it will leave the addressing of contentious issues to the principal parties themselves, while using its economic clout, its regional status and credibility, and the improved climate for inter-state cooperation, to nudge the parties towards accord.

What of the future of the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear programme? The Saudi side are anxious to see the revival of the agreement. Recent reports on this have been positive in that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been given free access for monitoring and verification activities in Iran. But doubts remain about the US posture – given the fraught and polarised domestic political scenario, it is doubtful that Biden, facing elections next year, will sign off on a deal that will ease sanctions on Iran.

This brings up the Israel factor. From 2020, the centrepiece of US-Israeli diplomacy has been to broaden the Israel-Arab coalition against Iran, without the Arabs seeking any concessions for the Palestinians. The Beijing accord firmly ends this expectation, leaving the US and Israel with a policy vacuum.

Given deep divisions in Israel and the extreme groups that make up Netanyahu’s government, the obvious expectation is that Israel will opt for a tough posture and look for a quick opportunity for an attack on Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons programme. Aggressive voices in this regard have already emerged both from Israeli sources and US generals. From a longer-term perspective, an attack on Iran would be the ultimate spoiler in the region’s march to peace under Chinese sponsorship; it would take West Asia back to the era of fratricidal conflicts for over four decades. This scenario has so far served US and Israeli interests.

But, counter-intuitively, this might not happen. One, though the Israeli government appears aggressive and trigger-happy, its military and security establishment is not. It has in the past restrained the politicians from foolhardy actions. With deep divisions in Israel on the state of the country’s democracy, it is unlikely that the country’s security guardians will countenance further regional disorder and carnage. It should be noted that sections of Israel’s armed forces had joined the protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, which under popular pressure have been shelved for now.

Two, Israel itself could be changing. Recent interactions with the Arabs through the normalisation agreements have exposed Israelis to their Arab cousins who are well-educated, self-confident and enjoy a high quality of life. As Israelis interact more and more with these Arabs, they may see less reason for the contentions with the Palestinians. Perhaps, as Netanyahu loses his standing and credibility, he might make way for more moderate political leaders who will see merit in a deeper and more peaceful engagement with the Palestinians and their West Asian neighbours, possibly facilitated by China.

Three, Israel may even realise, sooner rather than later, the futility of the sustained demonisation of Iran. After the Beijing accord, Israel’s former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, called for a fresh look at Israel’s ties with Iran; he noted that the two countries have enjoyed good ties historically and today have no territorial disputes. He has urged that the present “should be the moment for Israel … to determine whether this is an opportune moment to launch a very careful positive probe in the direction of Tehran”.

The emerging regional order

Despite the daunting challenges in obtaining regional peace, there is little doubt that China is now a central player in the West Asian political order. It has wrecked the US attempt to build a regional coalition against Iran, founded on its own (and Israel’s) military prowess. President Xi Jinping had earlier criticised the US role to areas of regional rivalry as “containment, encirclement and suppression”. As the Indian commentator, Zorawar Daulat Singh, has pointed out, in West Asia, China has now confronted this exclusive bloc-based collective security concept promoted by the US with “a more flexible, inclusive, multipolar” initiative that is not based on the projection of military power or security guarantees.

Instead, it uses diplomacy to encourage dialogue between states in contention and bases cooperation on broader regional economic synergies sustained by energy, trade, investments, logistical connectivity and joint ventures.

This focus on diplomacy in place of military force has fundamentally changed the regional security scenario – it has replaced the US’ monopoly control over regional security matters with a multipolar order in which the principal states adopt strategic autonomy and pursue their interests on the basis of dialogue and alignments on the basis of their own diplomatic initiatives. Chinese diplomats and leaders remain on the sidelines to proffer advice and good offices to unknot difficulties and support ideas that promote engagement and cooperation.

The American academic, Alain Gabon, points out that West Asia “has actually already entered a largely de-Americanised era”, an era in which regional states pursue “fluctuating, realist, pragmatic, fluid, radically open, and quite unpredictable hybrid alliances”. He notes in this context that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are eager to join BRICS; he also points to the increasing interest of oil producers to conduct trade in currencies other than the dollar.

The Beijing agreement has laid the foundation of a new regional order in West Asia.

(The author, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His latest book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published by HarperCollins India last year.)