March 21, 2023 | Insight

What’s in the Saudi Iranian Beijing Deal?

March 21, 2023 | Insight

What’s in the Saudi Iranian Beijing Deal?

Other than promising not to intervene in each other’s affairs and to restore diplomatic ties, Saudi Arabia and Iran did not agree to much in the deal that they signed in Beijing earlier this month. But judging by officials’ statements and editorials in the Saudi and Iranian press, both sides seem to inadvertently agree on one thing: The deal minimizes America’s role in the Gulf region. To Iranians, replacing America with China is the result of an imagined Iranian victory over the U.S. To Saudis, a smaller American footprint is what Washington wants. But while Riyadh has not given up on Washington yet, should America insist on folding, Saudi Arabia has started experimenting with other options.

While details about the deal remain scant, a few hints here and there can shed some light. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi, who sponsored and moderated the first of the five Saudi-Iranian dialogue sessions that led to the Beijing deal, said that Iran “admitted committing errors, including the [attack on the] Saudi Embassy in Tehran” in January 2016. Al-Kazimi added that Saudi-Iranian discussions were comprehensive and included Yemen, the Iranian-sponsored Yemeni militia known as the Houthis, and Lebanon, which is dominated by the pro-Iran Hezbollah militia.

Despite their comprehensive discussions, Riyadh and Tehran “did not manage to settle all outstanding disagreements between them,” according to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan, who said that the deal established that disagreements can only be solved through dialogue and that the “purpose of the trilateral Saudi-Iranian-Chinese statement is to prioritize [economic] development over [military] hegemony.”

Along the same lines, Saudi veteran columnist Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed wrote that Saudi Arabia is now focused on its economic and national interests. “China imports two million barrels [of oil] from Saudi Arabia every day, and that will increase, while America imports only 300 thousand barrels a day, and that will decrease.” Rashed added that “America imports over 50 percent of its energy needs from Canada,” and “the U.S. can live without Saudi oil, while China cannot.”

As America becomes less dependent on Gulf oil, it will feel less compelled to offer Gulf countries security, whereas while China grows more reliant on this oil, it will be in China’s interest to defend “a Saudi tanker or an oil facility,” to put it in Rashed’s words.

The Saudi writer concluded that “the Beijing deal should be happy news for Washington, which has been treating repeated Gulf countries’ demands for [defense] partnership with America, or security guarantees against Iranian threats, as a burden that America is not enthusiastic to handle.”

Yet despite Riyadh presumably inching closer to Beijing and further away from Washington, Saudi Arabia has yet to grant China its demand to make Saudi oil sales to China denominated in the Chinese yuan, a step that would boost the global status of the Chinese currency and undermine the U.S. dollar.

Iran, too, saw the deal as one where Saudi Arabia gets closer to China. By doing so, Saudi would be helping defeat and eject America from the Gulf. The deal is “the end of America’s hegemony in the region,” said Rahim Safawi, the former chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and now a top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“The post-America era has started in the Gulf with the deal between Tehran and Riyadh,” Safawi said, adding that “it seems that China and Russia will help Saudi Arabia become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”

In 2021, Iran bet its economy on China by signing a 25-year cooperation agreement, which gave Beijing immense leverage over Tehran. Should Iran or its militias burn the Saudi embassy in Tehran, like in 2016, or strike the Saudi Abqaiq oil facility, like in 2019, Riyadh can take it up with China, whose signature is on the deal. Or at least that’s how most Saudi pundits understood the deal.

For over a decade now, Saudi Arabia has been trying to convince America to maintain the Cold War front against Iran, Russia, and China. Washington, however, has blamed the Saudis for their seemingly hawkish foreign policy and insisted that they should de-escalate and share the region with Iran. Riyadh has finally played along and took the region back to pre-2016, when it had diplomatic relations with Tehran. Yet Saudi Arabia has not given up on America or switched sides, as Iranians seem to have understood – or are hyping up — with the Beijing deal.

By flirting with China, Saudi Arabia might be signaling that if Washington wants to give up on its 78-year-old alliance, Riyadh is ready to try other options, such as China. Before the Saudis went to Beijing, congressional voices dared them to do so and called on the White House to “call the bluff of the Bahrainis, Emiratis, or Saudis” by terminating the Carter Doctrine, which commits the U.S. to Gulf security.

Now we know that if America does “call the bluff” and end its security commitments to Riyadh, the Saudis might be visiting Beijing more often, and their future visits might not be limited to restoring ties with Iran.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.


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