Zahid Ali Zohri
Sporadically organized several rounds of dialogue attempts made to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran, bitter arch-nemesis, to a diplomatic rapprochement in Iraq, Oman, and China culminated eventually in a successful patch-up in Beijing. The five-day unannounced Chinese-brokered talks bore fruition when the world got to see Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi standing between the hand-shaking Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary, and Musaad bin Mohammad Ali Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser. This development, though much-needed and much-awaited, came as a surprise in the retrospect of the failed dialogue attempts to reach a rapprochement due to ever-existing bitter animosity and an intransigent approach. Notwithstanding the past flashpoints between Tehran and Riyadh, credit goes to China for fulfilling its duties as a host for dialogue.
Historically speaking, the two major Gulf powers cut their diplomatic ties in 1980, right after the Iranian revolution. Initially, a major bone of contention was religious; Iran emerged as a pan-Shia country while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has incorporated ‘Wahhabism’ as the state religion-two sects of Islam staunchly critical of each other. This rift continued to snowball owing to regional and geopolitical changing landscapes and divergent alliances of both countries. Having said that, there was a phase where the normalized relations could be observed. Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia were good from 1997-2005; 1998’s broader cooperation agreement and 2001’s security agreement substantiate this. But soon after that petty phase, both countries severed ties in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia scholar Baqir An-Nimr that triggered protests in Iran that ended up setting ablaze the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Also, both Gulf rivals fought proxy wars in the region for decades from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen. Pakistan being a Sunni-majority country and a significant Shia population has also been affected by its domino effect.
Geopolitically, China’s triumphant hand in the Iran-Saudi deal is a broader sign of changing global order. Such a successful start of a diplomatic détente is a huge geopolitical leverage for China in this critical juncture of geopolitics where the world seems to be heading towards a new Cold War era entailing the Ukraine-Russia war. Interestingly, the geopolitical role of China vis-à-vis the US will be critically analyzed post this success. This positive and almost impossible brokering will not only make China a ‘credible mediator’ but also a neutral and non-partisan power in restoring world peace. On the other hand, the impression of the US will be negative, especially against the backdrop of the Iran-Saudi rapprochement. It is evident that, unlike China, the US cannot be a ‘credible mediator’ and ‘neutral peacemaker’ due to its exceedingly taking sides and becoming co-belligerent in regional conflicts in its Middle East. It has outrightly threatened Iran to obliterate it from the world’s map while cooing Saudi Regime with its unconditional support for Mohammad Bin Salman’s confrontational policies against Iran and his misadventures in the Middle East, whereas, China didn’t take a side between Iran and SA and adopted a highly shrewd balance policy from the very beginning. By patronizing Israel’s hawkishness and allying with Saudi Arabia against Iran, the US has entangled itself in Middle Eastern conflicts that dented its reliability as a neutral mediator. China took advantage at the right time in the current geopolitical scenario.
Besides geopolitical leverage, China’s “clear interest” in improving ties between both countries and a stable Middle East is also economical. Gulf is a precious energy swathe for China that imports energy from both oil-rich arch-foes. For instance, when in 2019, Saudi oil facilities were targeted by the Houthi rebels, which badly affected the country’s oil production, leading to an increase in global oil prices of more than 14 per cent over the weekend, the biggest spike in more than a decade. Hence, conflict in the Persian Gulf largely affects its energy supply.
Whether a few more such developments could be the broader signs of the changing global order that bring to an end a period of the US being called an unchallenged global superpower post the Cold War or not remains to be seen. Along with others who hailed China for the aforementioned success, Pakistan also commended “China’s visionary leadership in coordinating this historic agreement.”
As two major Gulf superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has an impact on the Middle East specifically and the Muslim World generally. That OIC has become moribund and nominal that cannot ameliorate the Muslim sufferings from Palestine to Kashmir to Myanmar to Yemen to Syria to Libya to have roots in this rivalry. Similarly, developments in the Middle East do influence ideological and political trends in Pakistan. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia consider the Shias and Sunnis of Pakistan as their ideological assets respectively which immensely influence the sociopolitical and ideological outlook of Pakistan with significant populations of both major sects. Given the history of such geopolitics of sectarianism and its ramifications, which still haunt this country, the state should avoid repeating the same mistakes which brought home sectarianism which entailed extremism and terrorism. Conflicts in the Middle East have always had a ripple effect on Pakistan.
This fresh rapprochement should be grabbed as an opportunity by Pakistan, especially against the backdrop of its crippled economy. It should strike a healthy balance with both countries when dealing with geostrategic, economic and diplomatic matters. Our economic priorities with both should be based on cooperation and interests rather than any geopolitical constraint or bloc politics. A scrupulous and well-calculated foreign policy towards both countries is necessitated to gain economic leverage we are in dire need of at this critical juncture.