There were no leaks ahead of the announcement that negotiations were taking place, or that a deal between the two influential regional rivals was even close. Indeed high-level diplomats from the two countries had held several rounds of negotiations over the past two years, mediated by Oman and Iraq, without reports of an imminent breakthrough.
Yet the bigger bombshell was that the deal was mediated by China and signed in Beijing by the National Security Advisers of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, extremely senior officials in both countries. China needs no proof of its large-scale, worldwide influence. Yet, that has been mainly limited to economics, investments and trade, which have steadily made it a major world power. Beijing seemed to have chosen to stay away from diplomacy, particularly in the volatile Middle East, maintaining strong ties with all parties, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The most influential world power in Middle East affairs for decades, the United States – a position it has had both due to its custodianship of Israel and strategic interest in the free flow of oil – denied it was taken by surprise like everybody else. However, in sceptical tones, US officials pointed out that the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not limited to regional ambitions and influence, and has its sectarian root. The leading position of Saudi in the Muslim Sunni world, as opposed to Shiite Iran led by Ayatollahs, means that it would take more than such a ceremony to overcome deep differences and doubts.
Yet, whether Washington was given a last-minute heads-up or was truly aware of the behind-the scene negotiations, there is no question Washington looked like it was in a rather embarrassing situation. The Biden administration has been in an open confrontation with both China and Iran, who along with Russia, which together make up the new anti-American “axis of evil.” Probably those increasingly deteriorating ties with Beijing and Tehran, for many present and historic reasons, are what disqualified the US from mediating reduced tensions between the two regional powers. This left the door open for China to present itself for the first time as a world peace broker, and push forward with Russia the notion of a “multi-polar” world.
For the countries and peoples of the Middle East, the landmark deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite all those fears and doubts, can only be seen as a positive development. Considering that the ongoing confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran had left clear marks on many other regional conflicts, namely in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, any effort to reduce existing tensions, whether by China, the United States or Europe is welcome news that must be encouraged.
The Cold War mentality that dominated the international world order after World War II, incurring a heavy price on developing nations where proxy wars were fought between the United States and the former Communist Soviet Union, should never be revived. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear to all observers and analysts that a new world order is in the making, and it is one in which not a single country can be considered a sole superpower able to set the rules and present itself as a model for the rest of the world.
It is in the interest of the region that all key major world powers should cooperate to bring peace and economic prosperity to its people, instead of competing and fuelling regional wars in order to serve their own short-term interests.
Indeed the world needs diplomacy instead of confrontation to bring an end to what now seem to be open-ended conflicts in the Middle East, starting with Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the open confrontation between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours and its ripple effects in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and restoring Libya’s unity as a nation and a state. The same applies to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which has practically turned into a war between the US-led NATO and Moscow, having dire effects on the Middle East, politically and economically.
However, for the recent Saudi-Iranian deal to have a positive effect on the rest of the region, if not the entire world, the proof will be in the pudding. The first deadline is in two months. That is when the two countries said they would conclude the details of the deal and exchange ambassadors. A long-term truce in Yemen and the launch of reconciliation talks between the legitimate government in Aden, backed by Riyadh, and the Houthis in Sanaa who receive vital aid from Tehran, could be a good test of the intention of the two countries to start a comprehensive reconciliation process that covers their regional differences. Agreeing on a president and a new prime minister for Lebanon, where both countries have influence, is another front to watch, along with Iraq and Syria.
The Iranian-Saudi deal is not likely to have a magic, immediate effect on all those complicated conflicts. Yet it is certainly a step in the right direction, and could be the starting point in rebuilding a more just and balanced world order.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly