A China-brokered détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran has once again highlighted the importance of the Gwadar Port in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), granting Beijing direct access to Gulf states. China is clearly aiming to replace the U.S. as the “superpower” in the region, and its attempts at helping resolve longstanding issues between Tehran and Riyadh—through its economic might—seeks to facilitate this goal.
Prior to reviving diplomatic ties, Saudi Arabia regarded Iran as a revisionist power that fomented unrest in the Middle East through non-state actors in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, endangering regional security. By contrast, Iran saw Saudi Arabia as a rival for regional hegemony, especially with regards to its leadership of the Muslim Ummah. Under the agreement made public earlier this year, the two states have pledged to respect the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and are working to iron out practicalities of renewing relations and reopening embassies. They have also recommitted to two agreements inked between them in 1998 and 2001.
China’s advance in the Gulf has been brought about through its trade ties, even as the West—particularly through its military presence—withdraws from the region. Indications of this became clear in December 2022, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh for the first-ever Chinese-Arab summit. At the gathering, Beijing offered to host talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, eventually leading to the current détente. Its role as peace broker was facilitated by its status as Riyadh’s major trading partner and a 25-year economic cooperation agreement with Tehran. By availing the route offered through Pakistan, Gulf states and Iran can not only enhance trading partnerships, but also cultural engagements, despite sectarian differences. If handled correctly, this could truly help Pakistan emerge as a strategically important state in the region.