The China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, announced after talks in Beijing on 10 March 2023, put the spotlight on the multipolar Middle East, that has been in the making for quite some time. Talks between representatives of the two powerhouses, whose frail relations have contributed to the upheaval that has characterised the region in the last decade, have intensified in the past two year, despite ups and downs. The change of administration in the US clearly incentivised a broad regional détente, as the diplomacy first approach of the Biden presidency replaced the muscular isolationism of Donald Trump. However, as relations with Riyadh worsened (especially in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and ties with Teheran remained at an all-time low (as highlighted by the uncertain fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), Washington became increasingly estranged from a core region in which only until now it has been the main powerbroker, but now increasingly looks distracted by other priorities.
While in Washington the soundness of this regional policy may come under scrutiny, Tel Aviv was surprised to see that its diplomatic pressure to normalise ties with its Arab partners stopped at the gates of the Kingdom. Distracted by its self-inflicted domestic problems, the Netanyahu government has avoided acknowledging at political level this great reshuffle.
The current alternative is a privileged partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently reinforced with a free trade agreement that came into force at the end of March. Despite some visible cracks on a deprioritised Palestinian issue, emerged in multilateral fora like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the UN Security Council (UNSC), the good relations between Israel and the UAE remains the most significant achievement of the Abraham Accords that were intended as a commercial way to break stalemate and change local equations, also according to US interests.
The resurgence of non-alignment in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine has however favoured China and Russia, now actively looking to divide the spoils of the American hegemony in the Middle East, notwithstanding Washington’s supremacy in defence and military matters. Immediately after agreeing to resume diplomatic relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia announced its decision to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), while the national oil company Saudi Aramco finalised deals for a 20-year crude supply deal to Beijing and to purchase a stake in a Rongsheng Petrochemical, controlling owner of Zhejiang Petrochemical Corp that operates the largest refinery in China.
China’s risk-averse approach starkly contrast with Russia’s preference for hard power and military cooperation, as seen during the latest visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Moscow in late March. Already member of the SCO since last year, Iran has also announced a deal to purchase Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighters from Moscow after having provided Russia with drones deployed in the Ukrainian theatre.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region