China as ‘godfather’

Beyond its intra-regional consequences, several analysts said, Friday’s breakthrough is significant for how it came about: with talks brokered by China.

Despite its escalating engagement with the region — including a high-profile visit by Xi Jinping to Riyadh in December — Beijing has long been seen as reluctant to delve into its thornier diplomatic quagmires.

Saudi analysts on Friday said China’s role makes it more likely that the deal with Iran will endure.

“China is now the godfather of this agreement and that holds great weight,” said Ali Shihabi, a commentator who is close to the government.

“Getting China, with its influence on Iran, to godfather the agreement gave the kingdom the comfort to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.”

The deal indicates China is prepared to take on a larger role in the region, said Jonathan Fulton, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“This may be a sign of its growing confidence in its regional presence, it may be a sign that it thinks there is space to challenge US preponderance in the Middle East,” Fulton said.

“In any case, it looks like a diplomatic win for China and a significant departure from its regional approach up to this point.”

That will no doubt make Washington, which has a complicated decades-old partnership with Riyadh, “uneasy”, said the AGSIW’s Ibish.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Friday that while Washington was not directly involved, Saudi Arabia kept US officials informed of the talks with Iran.

Kirby appeared to downplay China’s involvement in Friday’s development, saying the White House believes internal and external pressure, including effective Saudi deterrence against attacks from Iran or its proxies, ultimately brought Tehran to the table.

But former senior US and UN official Jeffrey Feltman said China’s role, rather than the re-opening of embassies after six years, was the most significant aspect of the agreement.

“This will be interpreted – probably accurately – as a slap at the Biden administration and as evidence that China is the rising power,” said Feltman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

At the same time, US President Joe Biden’s team will likely see the value of the deal in terms of regional stability, he added.

“The Biden administration has been leading the way in emphasising the urgent need to promote diplomacy rather than conflict and confrontation in the Middle East and especially the Gulf region,” he said.

“It’s likely to view any reduction in tensions between Iran and Gulf Arab countries as generally positive.”