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Saudi Arabia and Iran are no longer mortal enemies. Thanks to China

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By Talibeh Hydara

On Friday, 10th March 2023, a joint trilateral statement was issued to the unsuspecting world. The content: Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume political ties. In this increasingly volatile world and with the differences between the Sunni and Shia Muslims still lingering, no one saw that reconciliation coming. No one, except China.

Of course, Saudi Arabia and Iran have tried to reconcile before. In fact, the latest attempts were made in Iraq and Oman, with Baghdad long being at the receiving end of the two countries’ proxy wars. The two powerhouses in the Middle East have huge differences for decades with tension ever rife but none of their actions actually upset the applecart to justify any direct confrontation.     

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This time, China took over the dialogue. The joint trilateral statement came as a huge surprise to many but it also shows China’s ability to broker peace in a world that needs it.

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The statement reads, thus: 

“In response to the noble initiative of His Excellency President Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, of China’s support for developing good neighbourly relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran; and based on the agreement between His Excellency President Xi Jinping and the leaderships of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereby the People’s Republic of China would host and sponsor talks between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran; proceeding from their shared desire to resolve the disagreements between them through dialogue and diplomacy, and in light of their brotherly ties;

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Adhering to the principles and objectives of the Charters of the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and international conventions and norms; the delegations from the two countries held talks on 6-10 March 2023 in Beijing – the delegation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia headed by His Excellency Dr. Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, Minister of State, Member of the Council of Ministers, and National Security Advisor, and the delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran headed by His Excellency Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudi and Iranian sides expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the Republic of Iraq and the Sultanate of Oman for hosting rounds of dialogue that took place between both sides during the years 2021-2022. The two sides also expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the leadership and government of the People’s Republic of China for hosting and sponsoring the talks, and the efforts they placed towards its success. The three countries announce that an agreement has been reached between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, that includes an agreement to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months, and the agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states. They also agreed that the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries shall meet to implement this, arrange for the return of their ambassadors, and discuss means of enhancing bilateral relations. They also agreed to implement the Security Cooperation Agreement between them, which was signed on 22/1/1422 (H), corresponding to 17/4/2001, and the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, which was signed on 2/2/1419 (H), corresponding to 27/5/1998. The three countries expressed their keenness to exert all efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security.”

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A good relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is reassuring to not only countries in the Middle East but to the entire world. The 3 largest oil producers in the Middle East are Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. If there is any instability between those two, that trickles down to even The Gambia as oil prices would hike and heighten cost of living.

On Wednesday, the Director of West Asia and North Africa, Mr Wang Di, invited the press to discuss how the Beijing Dialogue was able to restore peace in the Middle East.

Mr Wang Di, who was himself at the talks, has said this was an exemplary achievement as the world battles for peace and tranquillity. 

“The Beijing Dialogue has opened a new page in Saudi-Iranian relations. The two countries identified clear roadmaps and timeline for improving relations which will set a good foundation for their subsequent cooperation. The dialogue has also set a good example for countries in the Middle East to resolve differences through dialogue and consultation and achieve good neighbourliness. This has further contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East. The dialogue is also a piece of major good news to a world of turbulence. It shows that no matter how complex the issues are and how thorny the challenges may be, equal-footed consultation based on mutual respect will surely lead to a mutually acceptable solution,” Mr Di noted.

Mr Wang Di was full of praise for the willingness and commitment shown by both sides to give peace a chance.

“On China’s part, we look forward to more dialogue and communication between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he added.

Journalists at the presser

How did Saudi Arabia and Iran get here?

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over, Saudi Arabia has admittedly worked on its relations with neighbours. The country has reconciled with Turkey, supported a ceasefire in Yemen and even re-engaged with Syria.

Saudi’s differences with Iran didn’t start today. It started over three decades ago. From the Iranian Revolution, Qatif conflict, 1987 Makkah incident in which Shia pilgrims clashed with Saudi security forces during the Hajj. The Iranian leader at the time Khomeini was pissed beyond consolation. There was also a stampede in Mina during the annual pilgrimage and Iran blamed the Saudi government for the tragedy. The following year, Iran suspended participation in the upcoming Hajj.

But tensions actually peaked in January 2016 when at least 47 people were put to death in several Saudi cities, including prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. There was a huge protest in Tehran and then the Saudi embassy was attacked and set on fire. That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Saudi suspended diplomatic relations with Iran since then. 

It has been seven years of bad blood and taking sides in wars that have devastating impact on the region and the world at large.

There is high optimism, however, that none of the sides will renege on the agreement and that there will be a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Speaking earlier, the vice president of China Public Diplomacy Association, Mr Chen Yuming, said the landmark dialogue has set a good example for the regional countries to diffuse disputes and realise friendship through consultation.  

Will Africa benefit too?

Africa is in turmoil. That has been constantly said for nearly half a century. As other African countries reconcile, many others just find a reason to fight. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we are fighting.  That is the tragedy of African reality.

However, China’s landmark achievement in brokering peace between two mortal enemies in the Middle East could be great for Africa and Director Wang Di was clear about China’s ability to lead peace negotiations.

“The Islamic Prophet Muhammad once said that we need to seek truth no matter how far away truth lies. I think we may now say that in pursuit of peace, look to China,” he said.

China is a major trading partner of Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative alone has boosted regional integration and promoted economic growth on the continent.

“We will always be a reliable mediator for Africa. China supports differences to be resolved between countries through peaceful dialogue and consultation. This will always be our position be it in the Middle East, in Africa or in any part of the world. As long as parties concerned have the need, China will always be willing to play our role to contribute what we can do to resolving relevant issues. But any effort made by China will be made on the basis of respecting the will of relevant countries; what we do is to help, not to interfere. What we do is not imposition or lecturing,” Mr Wang Di replied to a question on whether China will initiate peace talks in Africa.

Whether China will eventually step in to Africa for peace talks remains unclear but the latest development in the Middle East has inspired hope in the continent.  

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