Middle East: The New Great Game

The recent China-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will mark the triumph of diplomacy over the military options that the US has generally resorted to in the region

Major Changes: A camp for conflict-displaced people in Yemen. The Iran-Saudi Arabia deal has raised hopes for steps towards peace in Yemen

On March 10, the West Asian political scenario was rocked by the announcement from Beijing that China had brokered a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. After a hiatus of seven years, the two Gulf neighbours agreed to restore diplomatic ties. They also pledged to respect each other’s sovereignty and not interfere in the internal affairs of the other.

They will uphold the ceasefire in Yemen and work on a peace accord to end the civil conflict in the country. Iran agreed to expand political and economic ties to all countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and begin discussions on a regional security framework. China is expected to play a central role in taking these issues forward.

This accord marks a dramatic end to a particularly difficult period that Iran has endured since 2018, when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement that had ended Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and eased sanctions. Trump then reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran that devastated the economy and impoverished its people.

Last year, Iran faced a new challenge. It was rocked by countrywide agitations following the killing of the 22-year-old woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, by the morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. These were led by women chanting the slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom”, and mocking their clerical leaders by publicly burning their hijab and even cutting off their hair. These demonstrations included participants from all classes and ethnic backgrounds, including workers, businessmen, sportspersons and celebrities.

Security forces responded harshly—nearly 500 persons, including 58 minors, were killed and nearly 20,000, including 30 journalists, were detained. Several demonstrators have been given death sentences; four of them were executed. The Iranian government defended itself by describing the agitators as terrorists, using weapons provided by foreign sources.

Iran has a long history of public protests. In 2009, there had been agitations against the manipulation of results in the presidential elections. In 2017-18, about 50,000 persons had come on to the streets, while in 2019 there had been 200,000 demonstrators of all classes, agitating in a hundred cities. Both these protests had been ignited by the people’s parlous economic situation, which has been a major factor in igniting agitations last year as well.

Regional Discord

Saudi Arabia has had longstanding concerns regarding Iran’s regional role, largely due to its close affiliation with Shia militants in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and its direct involvement in the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where its interests clash with those of the kingdom. Diplomatic ties between them were severed in response to violence directed at the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016, after the kingdom had executed a popular Shia cleric.

Officials from Saudi Arabia, China and Iran after Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume diplomatic ties on March 10 Photo: Getty Images

During the Trump era, there were several skirmishes between the US and the Iranian forces in the Gulf waters, culminating in the assassination by American drones of Iran’s Al-Qods commander, General Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. It had threatened to lead to a regional conflagration.

To make matters worse, in August 2020, the UAE formally normalised diplomatic ties with Israel, followed by Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, though Israel had taken no action to accommodate Palestinian interests. While Saudi Arabia refused to follow suit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2020, along with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The kingdom officially denied the Netanyahu visit and insisted that Israel accept the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 that promises normal Arab ties with Israel after Palestinian aspirations for statehood have been addressed.

From the Iranian perspective, however, given the demonisation of Iran as a regional threat, it was only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia too would join the US-led Israel-Arab coalition against Iran. Hence, Iran too had good reasons to engage the kingdom in peace talks.

Towards The Beijing Accord

What changed the regional scenario was that the US steadily began to lose credibility as a security provider. Following Trump’s failure to protect Saudi interests after attacks on its oil facilities in 2019, the kingdom now saw Joe Biden increasingly speaking of US disengagement from the region and focusing American attention on the competition with China in the West Pacific.

The US’ ignominious withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021, when many of its nationals and local supporters were abandoned in that war-torn country, was viewed as an abandonment of longstanding allies.

What changed the regional scenario was that the US steadily began to lose credibility as a security provider.

At this point, the kingdom began to assert its own strategic autonomy and pursue diplomatic engagements without the involvement of the US, reflecting the kingdom’s ambitions to be an independent role-player in regional and global affairs. This set the stage for the first Saudi-Iran dialogue in April 2021. Over the next year, five rounds of discussions took place in Baghdad between the intelligence officers of the two countries. There are also reports of three rounds of discussions in Oman.


This dialogue focused on bilateral security concerns as also the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia was keen to withdraw from this costly misadventure that was draining its treasury and denying much-needed funding for the “Vision 2030” projects that were aimed at achieving reforms that would equip Saudi Arabia for the post-oil future. The kingdom was keen that Iran reduce its supply of weapons— particularly drones and missiles—to the Houthi militants who, after seven years of war, continued to control the Yemeni capital and large swathes of territory.

The Saudi-Iran engagements, which began in April 2021, floundered in mid-2022, apparently because, amid the anti-hijab protests from September, Iran believed that Riyadh had a hand in encouraging the demonstrations through its hostile media and social media activity. However, then Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi succeeded in obtaining Iranian support for a truce in Yemen in April last year, which remains in place.


The revival of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue was finally facilitated by the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Riyadh in December, when Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have asked China to arrange the dialogue with Iran under its auspices. This arrangement was finally clinched by the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February.

China is viewed as a credible mediator—it has very substantial energy, political and economic ties with the region. Its diplomatic approach to the region is non-intrusive and non-prescriptive. Above all, given its commitment to the successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, in which most West Asian states are partners, it needs a stable and secure region for the projects to be implemented.


Representatives of the two countries, led by their national security advisers, met in Beijing from March 6. The tripartite accord was announced four days later, with China as its guarantor.

Outlook For The Region

The agreement dealt a hammer blow to the US attempt to build a coalition of Israel and Arab states directed at Iran. In fact, even the UAE, which had started the normalisation process, expressed displeasure at Netanyahu’s harsh policies against the Palestinians by cancelling his visit to Abu Dhabi in January. In March, Saudi Arabia too refused to host the visit of the Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, for a UN-sponsored event.


Within a month of the Beijing Accord, there have been several other positive developments. The Saudi finance minister has said his country is looking at major investments in the Iranian economy. There are indications that Bahrain will establish diplomatic ties with Iran shortly, the last GCC country to do so, while Raisi is expected to visit Riyadh soon. There are reports that China would be hosting an Iran-GCC conclave in Beijing in two months’ time.

While the security climate across the region has greatly improved, there are no expectations of dramatic changes in the trouble spots of Yemen and Syria. However, Saudi and Iranian officials may be expected to engage with each other constructively to build mutual trust and confidence and address each other’s interests and concerns.


The most significant change in the region is that the US no longer has the monopoly to determine regional security policies; it will now share the regional stage with China, even as, over time, it will be China that will emerge as the most important arbiter in regional competitions.

This will mark the triumph of diplomacy over the military options that the US has generally resorted to in the region— and has left a long trail of death and destruction, and instability and insecurity in its wake. Now, for the first time in forty years, West Asia could be looking at a decade without war.


(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as "The New Great Game")

Talmiz Ahmad is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He is the author of West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games