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The Dragon Rises in the Middle East: China Emerges as a Major Powerbroker

Proxy warfare has been a significant factor in fueling conflicts and instability in the Middle East.

5 mins read
Chinese President, Xi Jinping (L) is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2022. [Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images ]

by Jude

“If we want to make peace with the other, we must first make peace with ourselves.” – Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

With failing economic policies, a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and impediments to peace in Ukraine, Joe Biden’s America is losing pieces on the great chessboard of global politics. A rising star of the East, Xi’s China rather seems to be gaining influential global momentum through classic political interventionism in global affairs. The latest being China’s role in the brokering of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran where the two long-standing enemies-of-sorts have agreed to open diplomatic relations.

This recent deal could have far-reaching implications for the Middle East, particularly in the context of ongoing conflicts and tensions in the region. The divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran is largely driven by sectarian differences, with Saudi Arabia being predominantly Sunni and Iran being predominantly Shia. This divide has fueled conflicts in various parts of the region, including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with the latter often being characterised as a proxy war between the two countries. Despite this history of tension, the fact that both countries have agreed to reduce tensions and refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs suggests a willingness to move beyond the sectarian divide and focus on shared interests.

The Middle East has been wracked by conflict and instability for decades, with terrorism being a major driver of violence and instability in the region. Groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and others have carried out attacks throughout the region, targeting civilians and government installations alike. The rise of Islamic State in particular was fueled by a number of factors, including the US intervention in Iraq and the subsequent destabilisation of the region. The US’s role in funding and arming various rebel groups against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime further facilitated the creation of a chaotic and volatile environment in which groups like the Islamic State were able to thrive.

Proxy warfare has been a significant factor in fueling conflicts and instability in the Middle East. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have often relied on proxy groups to pursue their influence and interests in the region, with these groups carrying out various influence operations and militancy on behalf of their sponsors. The ongoing conflict in Yemen is a particularly stark example of this, with Saudi Arabia and its Western allies backing the Yemeni government, while Iran supports the Houthi rebels, reeling the gulf nation into a spiral of instability and violence.

While the fact that China was able to play a role in brokering the Saudi-Iran deal is significant in itself, it further suggests that other countries are increasingly willing to look to China as a major power broker in the Middle East. China’s growing influence in the region is driven largely by its economic interests, with the country heavily dependent on oil imports from the region and working to expand its economic ties with countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. By demonstrating its ability to play a constructive role in resolving conflicts and promoting stability in the region, China further enhances its reputation as a major power and a reliable partner in the eyes of countries in the Middle East.

However, China’s growing influence in the region is certainly not without its risks. As the Chinese Communist Party becomes more deeply involved in the politics of the Middle East, it could find itself drawn into conflicts or disputes that could prove difficult to resolve – as with the plethora of conflicts in modern time. It could also face backlash from other major powers, particularly the United States, which may see China’s involvement as a threat to its own interests in the region.

The Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China is a significant development that underscores the shifting balance of power in the Middle East. It suggests that countries in the region are increasingly willing to look beyond traditional power brokers like the United States and turn to other players like China to help resolve conflicts and promote stability. While there are risks associated with China’s growing influence in the region, the fact that the country was able to broker this deal suggests that there are opportunities for constructive engagement and diplomacy that could help address some of the most pressing challenges facing the Middle East today.

In addition to the sectarian divide, terrorism, and proxy warfare, there are several other factors contributing to instability and conflict in the Middle East. One of the most pressing is the ongoing refugee crisis, with millions of people displaced by conflict and violence throughout the region. The refugee crisis has placed enormous strain on countries throughout the region, and has also created significant political and social challenges for countries in Europe and other parts of the world.

Another significant factor contributing to instability in the Middle East is the ongoing struggle for political and economic power. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have long sought to expand their influence and assert their dominance in the region, often at the expense of other countries and groups. This struggle for power has fueled conflicts and tensions, with countries like Qatar and Turkey seeking to challenge the dominance of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region.

The involvement of external powers, particularly the United States, has also been a major factor in shaping the politics and dynamics of the Middle East. The US has historically played a significant role in the region, with its interventions and policies often exacerbating tensions and fueling conflict. This was particularly evident in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which destabilised the country through the elimination of its political leadership and disbanding of the Iraqi military, which created a power vacuum that was quickly filled by various armed groups.

US support for various rebel groups in Syria also contributed to the chaos and violence in the country, with groups like the Islamic State emerging as a major force in the region as a result. The fact that the US has been unable to resolve the conflicts and tensions in the region has led to a growing sense of frustration and disillusionment among countries in the region, many of whom are now turning to other players like China to help broker deals and promote stability.

Overall, the Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China represents a significant shift in the balance of power in the Middle East – and perhaps the world at large. While there are risks associated with China’s growing involvement in the region, the fact that the country was able to play a constructive role in brokering this deal suggests that there are opportunities for other countries to engage in constructive diplomacy and help address some of the most pressing challenges facing the Middle East in the 2020s. This includes the ongoing threat of terrorism, the proliferation of proxy wars, and the need to address the root causes of conflict and instability ranging from racial, religious and political tensions.

It is clear that the traditional powers in the region, such as the United States, are no longer the dominant players. On the global stage, the bipolarity world of the Cold War shifted to a unipolar one in the 1990s with a preponderance of power and influence being held by the United States. The unipolar world is shifting into that of a multipolar dimension with strong players such as China and India rising to become heavily influential players on the global stage. The US’ previous policies of intervention and support for various rebel groups seem to have only served to exacerbate tensions and fuel conflict across the world. The emergence of China as a major player in the region may provide an opportunity for countries to engage in constructive diplomacy and work towards a more peaceful and stable future for the Middle East. Of course, this is not to say that China and the Chinese Communist Party are saviors of the region, but to simply offer a glimpse into the rise of a new player in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

It is now up to countries in the region to build on this momentum and work towards a more stable and peaceful future for the region.This will require a commitment to dialogue, compromise, and cooperation, as well as a willingness to address the root causes of conflict and instability in the region. With the fall of the Islamic State and mass withdrawal of foreign troops in recent years, there is reason to hope that nations in the Middle East will be able to overcome their differences and work towards a more peaceful and prosperous future for their people.

Jude is a political and security affairs analyst

SLG Syndication

SLG Syndication is committed to aggregating excerpts from news published by international news agencies and key insights on contemporary issues published by think tanks. Our aim is to facilitate the expansion of its reach while giving due credit to the original source.

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