China’s shock success at bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together has challenged the United States’ longstanding role as the key outside power broker in the Middle East.
Beijing’s persuading arch rivals Riyadh and Tehran to reestablish diplomatic relations upstaged the US just as Washington appears powerless to intervene in the political tensions in Israel over the Netanyahu government’s sharp-right turn, which has inflamed Palestinians.
“Anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and deter in any way dangerous and destabilising actions by Iran is a good thing,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday on the Saudi-Iran deal announced on March 10.
US officials have tried to minimise Beijing’s role in the region, saying it is far from supplanting the US: much of the Middle East still sits under the Pentagon’s security umbrella.
But China’s breakthrough is a real challenge, as Washington remains deeply preoccupied with the Ukraine war and, over the long term, with blunting Beijing’s diplomatic and military advance in the Indo-Pacific region.
James Ryan, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Washington is happy if anyone can contribute to Middle East regional stability, even rival China.
“The Biden administration has very clearly said that when it comes to the Middle East they’re going to favour security, they’re going to favour stability,” he told AFP.