Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:53 PM CST – China

International

Middle East

View from China

Shifts in regional power and pride add fuel to the growing fire raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the eyes of Chinese analysts. The old game will continue, but the long-standing foes will not come to blows

Sometimes one’s friends are not themselves friends. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first Middle East trip – a tour of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt – took place shortly after the world had been stunned by the sudden escalation in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the region’s major rivals. On January 3, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. The day before that, Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric known for his criticism of the Saudi royal family. He had been accused of sedition and was killed along with 46 other prisoners who had been charged with terrorism. Protesters in Shiite-majority Iran then attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi Arabia its actions would bring about “divine revenge.”

The US and the EU immediately expressed concern over the consequences of inflamed sectarian conflict in the region and denounced the mass execution as an abuse of human rights. Such open criticism of Riyadh is rare among Western leaders. The UN, China, Germany, France and Russia all urged restraint and open dialog between the rivals. Their shared fear is that the heightening tensions would hamper the hard-won, piecemeal progress made in the Syria peace process, the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the fight against Islamic State (IS).

The feud between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran has a long history, due to ethnic, religious and geographic factors. To Chinese analysts, this latest flare-up is the two adversaries’ response to recent regional power shifts and policy changes, as well as to the reactions of other influential international players, but, the same observers argue, is unlikely to intensify into a military conflict.

Regional Changes

Yu Haiyang, deputy head of the department of international politics at Jilin University, observed that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have benefited considerably from the regional chaos of the past few years. As he explained in an article for the Chinese edition of NewsChina, today’s Iran has secured its nuclear program, managed to get oil sanctions lifted and expanded its influence via its military presence in Iraq, Syria and, purportedly, Bahrain and Yemen. It has thus accomplished nearly all the goals of its former supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For its part, the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, has not only weathered Arab Spring shockwaves, the rise of IS and the global economic recession over the past several years, it has also hit Russia and US shale oil producers hard on the world oil market and restored the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as the leading force opposing Iranian expansion. With the exception of Oman, all other GCC members – Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – have cut off or downgraded diplomatic relations with Iran, proving Saudi Arabia’s powerful influence over the coalition. Yu concluded that neither Tehran nor Riyadh would back down easily from the fray, especially when this recent increase in power has buoyed both nations’ sense of pride.

Saudi Arabia has regarded the Iran nuclear deal, which aims to restrict, but not dismantle, Iran’s nuclear facilities, as a clear sign of the US’s strategic retreat from the Middle East, which in turn has called into question the US’s commitment to the security of its biggest regional ally. In addition, there is little hope that world oil prices will rebound in the near future, which could leave Saudi Arabia with a budget deficit of nearly US$100 billion in 2016 and force the cutting of fuel and water subsidies, feeding public frustration. The execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr could further upset the country’s Shia minority, a not-insignificant 10-15 percent of the total population. Despite nearly a year of military operations against Houthi rebels in a divided Yemen, the Saudi-led military coalition of 10 Sunni-majority Arab nations has not made substantial progress toward ending the Yemeni civil war. Worse still, terrorist groups have taken advantage of the chaos. IS bombings and public executions have killed hundreds in Yemen, and Al Qaida now occupies three southern Yemeni cities.

Given this, Riyadh may benefit from ramped up tensions with Tehran. He Yafei, China’s former deputy foreign minister and deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Office of the State Council, said in his article for NewsChina’s Chinese edition that Saudi Arabia could use this friction to unify Sunni countries against Iran’s expansion and distract its people from their diminished financial situation. He added that Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite dissident despite strong opposition from the US and the EU in order to assert Riyadh’s independence and push the US to reconsider withdrawal from the Middle East.

Escalation?

Chinese analysts generally agree that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran intends to further intensify or prolong tensions under the current circumstances, nor are either of them capable of it. Yu Haiyang wrote that due to Saudi Arabia’s awareness of its own social and military weaknesses, it “has never been, nor vied for, the status of Sunni leader.” Instead, it has acted as a “cooperative player in the geopolitical game in the Middle East.” This has been reflected, he explained, in the royal family’s support for Egypt in the early years of the nationalist Nasser regime in the 1950s, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. It has always attached great importance to its close ties to the West, particularly its relationship with the US. Yu described Saudi’s interventionist military actions in the Middle East, particularly in Bahrain and Yemen, as “defensive.” They are attempts to keep Shia forces away from Saudi borders, not desperate strikes like those the country has carried out the oil war.

As for Iran, its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is hardly its top priority. He Yafei stressed that Iran regards the end of isolation from the international community as a paramount desire. Although Iran’s response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr looked tough –Iranian leaders banned Saudi imports and prohibited its citizens from journeying to the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia – it exhibited more restraint than Riyadh. He Yafei pointed out that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani advocated for the trial of the “criminals” who ransacked the Saudi embassy, and Iranian officials have called for a de-escalation of tensions between the two countries. On January 4, Iran even sent a letter to the UN expressing “regret” over the Saudi embassy attack and vowed to prevent such incidents in the future. Besides, Yu Haiyang noted, Iran’s Persian ethnic majority makes it harder for the country to build a strong foothold in Arab societies, even Shiite-led ones.

For the US and Russia, the two foreign countries exercising the most influence in the Middle East, determining who should be the dominant regional power, be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey, is low on the to-do list. At a January 9 panel discussion on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, Ma Xiaolin, a prominent Chinese expert on the Middle East, said that the US believed the fight against IS and hedging China’s rising power were more urgent issues, while Russia is concentrating on dominating the Syria peace process. He concluded that neither of them would like to see the Iran-Saudi row disturb their own agendas. Instead of rushing to take the side of American ally Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State John Kerry and White House press secretary Josh Earnest have repeatedly urged the two sides to solve their disputes through diplomacy. Russia has offered to act as a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran, according to a report by Sputnik News, a state-run Russian media agency.

Local Powers

Although the US and Russia are often viewed as the biggest hitters in the Middle East, they do not hold that decisive power today. During the Phoenix TV broadcast, Feng Yujun, director of Russian studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said he agreed with the “G0” concept that illustrates the lack of global leadership in today’s world, a term first coined by author and political scientist Ian Bremmer. As Feng explained, in the Middle East, the US is reducing its direct involvement, while Russia’s advancement in the region, though successful, remains limited.

In this context, signs of realignment among local powers have attracted the attention of international and Chinese observers. Saudi Arabia and Israel, which do not and never have had formal diplomatic relations, have reportedly cooperated on intelligence matters for years. In the past two years, the open, albeit rare, meetings of both sides’ senior officials have not gone unnoticed by international media. These “frenemies,” as some news outlets put it, are believed to be bonding over their common interest – combating the rising strength of Iran and Islamic extremist groups, particularly IS.

Since the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in early 2015, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia have pushed aside their rivalry for Sunni preeminence and built a closer partnership in Syria and Iraq in a bid to counterbalance Iran,” wrote Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in a January 24 article in a journal published by the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, an Israeli non-profit organization promoting academic exchanges with Chinese experts. One example of their cooperation is that Saudi Arabia reportedly stationed warplanes at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in February in order to launch strikes against IS.

Feng Yujun said all of these factors show that, as global powers shrink, regional powers are playing a bigger role than ever before in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Chinese analysts and the international community at large will also continue to watch China’s movements in the region. The fact that President Xi Jinping’s first state visits of 2016 were to countries in the Middle East is itself proof that China has decided to take a more active role. 

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