China mediates a rapprochement between long-time adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian dictator Assad is warmly welcomed in the United Arab Emirates.
The foreign ministers of the rival regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran drew closer during talks in Beijing last week. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had previously been on hold for years. In March, however, China surprisingly mediated an agreement between the two countries. “Both sides stressed the importance of implementing the Beijing Agreement in a way that strengthens mutual trust and expands cooperation,” it said. They announced that they wanted to work together to stabilize the Middle East. Both countries wanted to cooperate and “create security, stability and prosperity in the region”.
The agreement was mediated by China. MENA Research Center has already reported on this. It was a major breakthrough for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has stepped up his push for China to play a more active role in international affairs. Internationally, the rapprochement met with largely positive reactions.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning praised the meeting, adding that his guests “expressed their gratitude to China for its contribution to promoting dialogue.” “China will work with Middle East countries” to stabilize the region and wants to promote “prosperity, tolerance and harmony.”
The role of the West is dwindling
As early as March, the major rivals in the Gulf agreed to resume diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. Just a few days later, the Saudi King Salman invited the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Riyadh. The antagonism between Shiite and Sunni leaders has done significant damage to the entire region, and the West may welcome the fact that the destructive power of this antagonism may now be contained. But not that the big rival China can celebrate itself as a mediator and guarantor power. Last but not least, the relaxation initiative in the Gulf is a sign that the influence of the USA is declining here. Saudi Arabia or the Emirates never wanted to take sides in the major systemic conflict between the West on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. For a long time, the monarchs of the Gulf looked to the West for security, while looking to the East for future prosperity. Beijing is now gaining more political weight as an economic partner.
The rapprochement between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and Shia Iran, which is under Western sanctions for its nuclear program, has the potential to reshape the balance of power in a region marred by decades of unrest. China’s success in mediating between the two previously warring states challenges the role of the US as the traditional mediator between powers in the Middle East. The loss of credibility that America suffered as a result of the Iraq invasion is far from over.
The thaw in the Gulf also serves to preserve autocratic regimes. Last but not least, both Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran are concerned with supporting their own system of rule. The regime in Tehran is under pressure from Western sanctions and an internal insurgency that is shaking its foundations. The Saudi leadership under the heir to the throne and de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman wants to focus its energies on managing the restructuring of its own economy, which is essential for survival. It is no coincidence that “stability” is repeatedly invoked in the Gulf, so that the Arab monarchs can prove that their state models with effective administration but without civil liberties are a blueprint for the future.
Abu Dhabi makes Assad presentable again
The other important event took place in Abu Dhabi: the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad landed with his wife Asma in the United Arab Emirates for the second time in a year. Their ruler Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan gave the Assads a warm welcome, including a brass band and a gun salute. The leadership in Abu Dhabi is working on rehabilitating the dictator from Damascus, who now feels so secure in the saddle that he is increasingly daring to travel abroad. Assad had previously been in Moscow, accompanied by a large delegation of ministers, according to the Syrian Presidential Office.
Abu Dhabi’s campaign to bring Assad back into the folds of the autocrats, with no apparent help from Beijing, is a sign of America’s decline in importance. In Washington, the images of harmony from the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi are likely to cause displeasure. After all, Assad is a dictator in Saddam Hussein’s rank: a man who used poison gas on civilians and had tens of thousands of dissidents tortured to death. That the leadership in Abu Dhabi has no qualms about setting a dangerous precedent by arguing that Assad should be rehabilitated rather than tried as a mass murderer is one thing. The other is the fact that the Emirates did not allow themselves to be deterred by US headwinds in the cost-benefit analysis. Maybe Washington doesn’t care enough anymore. Perhaps Washington is no longer important enough to the Emirates.
Assad feels safe again
If the wealthy Gulf states have their way, Syria could soon rejoin the Arab League after the country was expelled in 2011. Assad also benefited from the earthquake disaster, which killed thousands of his compatriots. Dozens of nations had sent aid to Syria, including to areas controlled by the regime. This necessarily reopened channels of communication to Damascus, and even the director of the World Health Organization and the UN emergency aid coordinator visited Assad. That would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.
The dictator immediately took advantage of the spotlight and demanded the lifting of all sanctions against his country. Although Washington and Brussels rejected this, they at least eased the flow of money for humanitarian purposes. So Assad is increasingly becoming acceptable again, which is a problem for the West in particular. The moral indignation about the murder, torture and poison gas attacks by the Syrian regime was just as great as it is today about the Russian crimes in Ukraine. Only the reaction to the Syrian civil war was completely different at the time.
The Syrian regime, a dictatorship of the old Arab school, could benefit from the détente between its protecting powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bashar al-Assad can now hope that the kingdom’s resistance to efforts to free him from the seedy corner of the Arab autocrats will dwindle. Given the regional dynamics, it is easier for him to get over the fact that Vladimir Putin is weakened and under pressure because of the attack on Ukraine. It’s actually a good thing for the Syrian despot that his Russian protector is also a problem child of an authoritarian axis, namely the one between Moscow and Beijing: Meetings with Putin used to be humiliating for Assad. After his visit to Russia, he announced that the bilateral meetings had been “the best in years”.
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