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Photo illustration by John Lyman

Beijing probably felt pretty good about its announcement of a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. While a win is a win, the region won’t fundamentally change as a result.

In early March, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China issued a joint statement announcing a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. This signaled a new path towards the reconciliation of two regional rivals and affords Beijing an opportunity to shine internationally. There are still some unanswered questions regarding the rapprochement and whether it will last for a significant amount of time, but it is useful to examine what each country has at stake.


China was a minor foreign actor in the Middle East until the 21st century. After Xi Jinping’s ascension in 2012, China’s strategic goals shifted toward the Middle East due to the Belt and Road Initiative and its goal of securing energy resources from oil-producing Gulf states.

By initiating the rapprochement, Beijing is seeking to maintain stability between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as both are major oil suppliers to China. China’s ultimate goal, whether realistic or not, of surpassing the United States depends on a relatively stable region.

Moreover, China and Russia have both been advocating for the de-dollarization of oil-related transactions. Several countries that have their usual grievances with the United States have shown an interest in trading goods and buying oil that doesn’t rely on the U.S. dollar.

Xi Jinping has also been championing the Global Security Initiative (GSI). The United States Institute of Peace describes the initiative as an effort to offer certain countries an alternative to the Western-led security architecture. “While the GSI remains notional and somewhat vague, Xi is on the offensive, seeking to position his vision of a new global security architecture as an alternative to the Western-led security order. In an era of heightened strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, Xi’s GSI campaign could amount to yet another challenge to the U.S.-China relationship and the two countries’ ability to peacefully manage differences.”

Saudi Arabia

While the Saudis have traditionally been seen as an essential partner to the U.S., growing criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have complicated matters.

Furthermore, the reluctance of the U.S. to act against Houthi attacks on Saudi infrastructure frayed the relationship. Saudi Arabia is de-escalating with Iran as part of its Vision 2030 socioeconomic growth strategy. An escalation with Iran would jeopardize Saudi Arabia’s hopes of becoming a regional and global center for cloud computing, logistics, trade, and industry.

Additionally, the Biden administration has finally shown discomfort with helping the Saudis commit numerous atrocities in Yemen. Consequently, Riyadh is exploring alternative options to address its alignment with the U.S. by engaging with other external powers, such as China.

Nevertheless, Beijing’s diplomatic relations with Tehran made the Saudi-Iran rapprochement possible. However, Riyadh is not likely to ditch decades of diplomatic relations with Washington, but they are playing both sides.


Since the late 1970s, the United States and its allies have accurately characterized Iran as a threat to Middle East security. However, through this rapprochement, China has normalized Iran and its behavior and Beijing expects the region to eventually normalize relations with Tehran. Unfortunately for Xi Jinping, the spillover effect is likely to find a hostile audience in Israel.

Iran may also feel more secure due to its newfound friends in Beijing and will likely be under the assumption that the United States or Israel will unlikely see a military solution to address the country’s nuclear activities as realistic. The onus is now on Iran to act responsibly. However, given its decades of support for terrorist groups and other nefarious activities, this is probably unlikely. Iran is unlikely to completely abandon Hezbollah or the Houthis.

China is also interested in Iran’s natural resources, and because the country is cash-strapped, Tehran is unlikely to reject Chinese natural resource exploitation.

Human rights

A significant component of this reconciliation effort is that China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have abysmal human rights records. For the past several years, China has brutally oppressed Uyghur Muslims, confining them to quasi-concentration camps in Xinjiang. Despite receiving criticism from the international community, China has proclaimed it an internal matter. Both the Iranians and the Saudis, despite being predominately Muslim countries, are now forced to ignore the plight of fellow Muslims fully aware that this is the nature of the relationship.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi shows the lengths that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will go to suppress dissent and criticisms. According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia has routinely suppressed freedom of expression and imprisoned human rights defenders.

Similar scenarios are also seen in Iran, where the authorities have brutally suppressed dissidents, killed protestors, imprisoned human rights activists, and oppressed anyone else who poses a threat to its legitimacy.

In this way, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are more or less in agreement with respect to human rights and anyone else who might pose a threat to their rule. All three countries will likely refrain from any sort of criticism of each other’s human rights records and will offer each other diplomatic cover at the United Nations.


All outward signs point to the Saudi-Iran rapprochement as a masterstroke by Beijing, but moving beyond the region, this development won’t translate into other wins. Taiwan won’t suddenly change course and seek to join the mainland and China’s support for Russia is still an albatross.

In the Middle East, Washington still possesses much more influence. And while China will likely launch further initiatives, much of its recent diplomatic maneuvers haven’t shown great promise and in places like Ukraine, have been rejected. Time will tell whether Beijing has any appetite for any long-term commitment to the region.

Khandakar Tahmid Rezwan is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. His research interests include theories, military security, counterintelligence, international law and geopolitics.

Ashiq Iqbal Jishad is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Dhaka. His research interests include defense, immigration, Transatlantic relations, Eurasia, the European Union, and NATO.