Rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran restore ties, with China's help. Here's why it matters
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today there is news of warming relations between two big adversaries in the Mideast, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two oil giants have been on opposing sides in wars from Syria to Yemen. Saudi Arabia even says Iran was behind a stunning attack on its oil facilities back in 2019. But the possible break in these tensions comes from an unexpected place, China, which helped broker a deal between these countries. NPR's Aya Batrawy covers the Gulf and joins us now from London. Hi, Aya.
AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what exactly does this deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia include?
BATRAWY: This deal essentially says that these two regional rivals are going to resume full diplomatic ties, which means they're going to open their embassies again in one another's countries. And this is huge because seven years ago, they had ruptured ties. And Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran was ransacked by Iranian protesters who were angry at a mass execution in Saudi Arabia that included the killing of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric. So what this agreement does is it says the foreign ministers are going to directly talk to one another. They're going to revive security agreements and trade and investment agreements. And all of this is supposed to happen within two months.
CHANG: Wow. That's really fast. What effect could this have on stability or security in the region?
BATRAWY: I mean, this could reverberate widely, especially in places like Syria and Yemen. And the reason is because in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been backing opposing sides of that conflict. But that conflict now is almost in a stalemate in most of - parts of Syria. So we could see tensions there, you know, going down. But also, in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been involved in a war there against Iranian-backed Houthi militia groups, this could also help wind down that conflict, which Saudi Arabia desperately wants to get out of. So it could lead to a permanent cease-fire there. But it could also impact countries like Lebanon and Iraq, where there are Iranian-backed militias. Think about Hezbollah and Iran, for example. That activity could go down as well. So this could really have a positive impact on many countries.
CHANG: Well, I understand that this whole deal was announced during the annual leadership meeting in China. What do you think that says about the way China perceives its role in the Middle East?
BATRAWY: There's no doubt, Ailsa, that China is an ambitious global power, and this is a diplomatic win for Beijing. China's neutrality in the region - and it is a major buyer of oil from Iran and Saudi Arabia - has allowed them to play this role to their advantage. They have a policy of non-interference in the Middle East, which basically means you're not going to see Beijing criticizing neither Iranians nor Gulf Arab leaders for things like human rights and the human rights records in their countries. So China is really using that hands-off approach to assert its influence. And this is the first time we've seen China broker a deal like this in the Middle East.
CHANG: Well, is China brokering a deal something that's going to change the U.S.'s role in the region? Because usually, it seems like it's the U.S. that tries to make these Mideast agreements happen, right?
BATRAWY: I mean, the U.S. says anything escalates tensions is in America's interests. I mean, that's their response to this announcement from China. But there's no doubt that this reflects real concerns among Gulf Arab states that the U.S. is focused now on other parts of the world, like Ukraine or China, and is not the security partner that it once was in the Gulf. But despite these tensions, the U.S. is still the top security partner for Gulf Arab states, and it is an unmatched superpower in the world at the moment. And Saudi Arabia still relies heavily on the U.S. for its weapons and air defenses. But this definitely puts the U.S. on notice that China's ambitions are growing.
CHANG: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy. Thank you so much, Aya.
BATRAWY: Thank you.
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