Hossein Amirabdollahian was the first Iranian foreign minister to visit Riyadh in ten years, in August. His trip to the Saudi capital went so well that he added an extra day to his planned visit. In a symbolic gesture, he was received by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself, who in a terse but warmly-worded statement pledged to further deepen cooperation. When the head of Iranian diplomacy returned to Tehran, his first task was to have a telephone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who welcomed the fact that the process was moving in the right direction. Not for nothing, Beijing is probably just as keen to see the peace that has been brokered last, as this is a test of Chinese diplomacy.
How could the Chinese have kicked the ball around in the traditionally American, British, French and, more recently, Russian sphere of influence? Well, one reason is precisely that China is starting with a clean slate compared to the West, which has a long but equally turbulent history. They are not burdened by crusades, colonialism and borders drawn with rulers, nor by the memory of the murderous wars of 'democracy exports'. They have not played down their credibility and are not trying to solve problems from an imaginary moral high ground but from the ground of mutual respect. And this is appreciated in diplomacy.
China, on the other hand, is now a great power whose opinions cannot simply be dismissed. Beijing makes no secret of the fact that it does not want to play the role of the global policeman, but simply has a peaceful and stable Middle East in its geopolitical and economic interests. Historic silk routes have already crossed the region, and the vast majority of Chinese goods now reach Europe via these routes, and the large-scale Belt and Road Initiative is attracting huge further investment. China's trade with the Middle East already approached 260 billion dollars in 2021, far outstripping the US and Europe. The region plays a key role in dampening the Chinese economy's hunger for energy: Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter, Iraq third and Oman fourth. Meanwhile, they have also signed up for Qatari LNG, with an agreement this year to buy four million tonnes of LNG a year by 2050. And last year, the idea of paying for energy in Chinese yuan rather than US dollars was raised in an unprecedented move.
Could this end US influence in the Middle East? Hardly, but Beijing has never set out any such goals. Although China has a military base in Djibouti - where the Americans also have a base - and is regularly talking about building one in the United Arab Emirates, it does not want to, and cannot, take on the security role of the United States. It would deal with conflicts through diplomacy rather than arms. Peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran could resolve, or at least ease, the conflict that has poisoned Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The hardest nut to crack is the Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Xi Jinping has already indicated this year that he is ready to mediate on this issue. In the summer, he received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that he had also been invited. The last time the talks were taken up in earnest was under Barack Obama, so the fact that the issue is back on the table is a big deal. And then who knows? The Nobel Peace Prize has been won for less.*
The author is a foreign policy journalist
*This article was originally published before the recent events in Israel and Gaza.