Why the China-brokered Iran-Saudi Reconciliation Effort is not bad news for I2U2

The involvement of China as the broker was rather unanticipated but not entirely unexpected. China has over the years increased its engagement with the Gulf and West Asia.

iran-saudi arabia
Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani talks with Minister of State and national security adviser of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban during a meeting in Beijing, China March 10, 2023. cnsphoto via REUTERS

By Md. Muddassir Quamar

For years, West Asia analysts and observers contextualised regional conflicts in the competition, tension and rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.The roots of the problem between the two Gulf power were often located in ethnic and sectarian divisions, namely Shia vs. Sunni and Arab vs. Persian. Seldom did one find geopolitics and threat perception in analyses Riyadh-Tehran tensions. Thus, it came as a surprise for many that the two agreed to take steps towards resuming diplomatic relations in a China-brokered announcement on March 10, 2023.

The involvement of China as the broker was rather unanticipated but not entirely unexpected. China has over the years increased its engagement with the Gulf and West Asia. While the focus initially was on trade, commerce, investments, and energy security, it gradually shifted to geoeconomics with the launch of One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. It accelerated China’s investments in critical infrastructure including ports, road and transport, free zones, business cities and transnational connectivity hubs, and led to promises of integration of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States’ mega economic transformation programmes, such as the Saudi Vision 2030, Oman Vision 2040 and others, with the BRI. China and Iran, on the other hand, signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement in 2021 with a promise of US$400 billion over the next 25 years.

The greater Chinese engagements in West Asia coincided with a sense of American indifference towards the region. Under Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, US’sMiddle East policy was inconsistent with a palpable shift towards Asia and Indo-Pacific. The GCC allies of the US felt threatened by Iran’s regional behaviour and its nuclear programme but were ignored at the time of signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. Although President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the lack of a tangible response to the 2019 attacks on Saudi oil installations highlighted the need for re-evaluation of the GCC States’ security strategy. In addition to improving ties with global powers, it reflected in UAE normalising relations with Israel and taking steps to bring down tensions with regional rivals including Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia too developed covert contacts with Israel and began a reconciliation with Qatar, Turkey and has now taken steps to do so with Iran.

The question that is most relevant for New Delhi amidst the ongoing geopolitical developments in Gulf and West Asia is how it affects Indian interests and aspirations in the region. India has invested in enhancing relations with the regional countries over the past decades and this has accelerated under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It led to an increased focus on economic, trade and commercial relations with the GCC countries, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with an emphasis on two-way flow of investments. Simultaneously, New Delhi has strengthened security, defence and military contacts with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat. With Iran too relations have continued although the intensity of bilateral engagements has been affected due to exogenous factors. In bilateral engagements with the Gulf countries, the focus continues to be on energy security, expatriates, trade and investments, and security and defence cooperation.

India has also expanded regional engagements beyond the Gulf. Relations with Israel that were earlier shrouded in secrecy have become open and warm, and have been de-hyphenated with India’s approach towards Palestine. India-Israel relations have expanded in defence trade, and science and technology. New Delhi has also taken steps to revive the old warmth with Cairo and is trying to develop economic and security cooperation. Engagements with other regional countries including Iraq, Bahrain, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan too have become frequent.

Besides, India’s pattern of engagements with West Asia have become more dynamic in recent years. While bilateralism defined the earlier engagements, New Delhiis gingerly taking steps to engage through minilateral initiatives such as the quadrilateral India-Israel-UAE-US (I2U2) and trilateral India-UAE-France. In 2022, India joined the Combined Maritime Force (CMF) based in the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain. The focus of these initiatives remains on geoeconomics and maritime security in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea.

Will the growing Chinese footprints in the Gulf and Middle East impact India and its regional interests? And, how will the Saudi-Iran reconciliation effort affect I2U2? While the broader Chinese expansion in the region does pose a challenge for India, the promise of reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran is a welcome development. As a matter of fact, peace, stability, and security has always been a cornerstone of India’s broader regional engagements even though New Delhi has eschewed taking any mediatory roles, and rightly so.

The I2U2 is a forum that is focused on geoeconomics and human security. Among its priorities are food security and clean energy, besides it promises to explore possible avenues for collaboration in improving connectivity, infrastructure, healthcare and finding technological solutions to pressing concerns including water scarcity, waste management and so on. Although it has been underlined that the I2U2 isan undeclared China-containment initiative,given the participation of the US and India, the fact remains that UAE and Israel do not yet see China as a threat.That means the I2U2 has thus far avoided any explicit geopolitical or strategic agenda.

Even from a geoeconomic point of view, the I2U2 does not intend to replace Chinese BRI and other infrastructure development initiatives. It is more focused compared to China’s grand transnational connectivity projects aimed at reviving the historical Silk Route connecting the Middle Kingdom to Inner Asia, Persia, Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean. The I2U2 alternatively is focused on harnessing the strengths of the four partner countries and building on the Abraham Accords towards geoeconomic interdependence among regional countries and their international partners.

Undoubtedly, Beijing has gradually expanded its geostrategic footprints in Gulf and West Asia, and the brokering of an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran testifies to its arrival as an extra-regional power. It adds to China’s stature as a global power. Notwithstanding, any immediate adverse impact on I2U2 and its geoeconomic agenda is unlikely. If at all, this should increase the resolve of the I2U2 partners to deliver on the promises, and build on it to expand their collaborative efforts to enhance regional peace, stability, and sustainability.

The author is Associate Professor at Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @MuddassirQuamar

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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First published on: 31-03-2023 at 16:35 IST
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