Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Behind China’s Mideastern Diplomacy

| Mar. 12, 2023

Surprise. As the world awaited announcement of a U.S.-brokered normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, China brokered an even more surprising normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Iran lives up to the agreement and respects “the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states,” the deal could have a stabilizing impact across the region. But Saudis remain deeply skeptical that Iran has abandoned its desire for domination.

What is most striking is the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia, both of which fear a Mideast war could damage their grand ambitions. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to transform Saudi Arabia into a major world power by 2030, and President Xi Jinping seeks to displace the U.S. as the global superpower but can’t do it without Middle Eastern oil. As Iran moves closer to nuclear weapons, both Beijing and Riyadh fear an Israeli strike would lead to a wider conflict; and an Iranian bomb would threaten the Saudis too.

Concluding that the U.S. likely wouldn’t carry out its pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, the Saudi regime decided to trade confrontation for alignment. “We have to accept reality and figure a way to live with a nuclear Iran,” one official says. “So, we will go from hostile relations to better relations.”

Yet the kingdom’s real purpose is to raise pressure on the Biden administration to abandon Iran and provide the security guarantees Riyadh demands to recognize Israel. Normalization remains a Saudi goal but not as part of the Abraham Accords. Instead, Saudi-Israel normalization would be a new initiative by Riyadh to pave the way for major Islamic nations like Indonesia and Malaysia to establish relations with the Jewish state. In exchange, the crown prince wants the U.S. to declare Saudi Arabia a strategic ally, provide Riyadh reliable access to American arms, and support his plans to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production for 16 nuclear reactors the kingdom intends to build over the next two decades. All these measures will encounter resistance in Congress.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen.“Behind China’s Mideastern Diplomacy.” The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2023.