Xi Jinping has accomplished a double victory. In addition to winning a new term as president (the 2,952 delegates of the National People’s Congress voted unanimously in his favor on Friday, March 10), the Chinese leader contributed to a renewal of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to an announcement from Beijing on the same day. Not only were the secret negotiations concluded under China’s sponsorship – the final declaration is in fact tripartite – but, since 2016, Xi himself has been heavily involved in the region. This normalization agreement enshrines China’s rise to power in the Middle East. Long confined to the role of a simple client of Gulf oil companies, Beijing has now become a strategic partner of the peninsula’s monarchies and a political player in the region as well.
Between the monarchy of Saudi Arabia – which is traditionally pro-American and home to Islam’s most important holy place – and communist China, which persecutes Uighur Muslims, such an agreement was not a given. But Xi was able to take advantage of the rise of Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”), which began in 2015, to bring about a rapprochement based both on the development of economic exchanges and Riyadh’s desire to distance itself from Washington.
In January 2016, Xi made official visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. He concluded numerous agreements and included these countries in his New Silk Roads international investment project. Saudi Arabia then became one of China’s “integral strategic partners” – a term previously reserved for Iran and the United Arab Emirates in the region.
Speaking for the ‘Global South’
Unlike Washington, China has always managed to maintain good relations with Riyadh and Tehran (along with Israel). In March 2021, then foreign minister Wang Yi signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Iran for a period of 25 years.
In December 2022, Xi was once again welcomed with pomp and circumstance in Riyadh. In addition to deepening cooperation between the New Silk Roads and the kingdom’s modernization program (“Vision 2030”) led by MBS, this trip was an opportunity to organize the first summit between China and the Gulf countries. Even if the Islamic Republic had not necessarily seen the event favorably, Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi’s reception in Beijing with great fanfare in mid-February undoubtedly helped to ease differences and prepared the negotiation that was concluded on Friday.
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Moreover, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would like to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and, as Tehran has done, Riyadh could become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was launched by Moscow and Beijing to coordinate their actions in Central Asia but which now extends to the Middle East.
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