The China-brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia stands to change the global scenario in ways that many in Pakistan have yet to fully realize. With the U.S. indicating a desire to reduce its role in the Middle East, China is stepping in to fill the vacuum, motivated in part by its energy needs, which are increasingly met by Gulf states. Similarly, Beijing wants to protect its investments, having pledged to spend $400 billion in Iran over the next 24 years, while also contributing naval ships to join anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
In its entry to the Gulf, China has waded into sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which have traditionally shaped politics and conflict in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially, have been involved in proxy fights in Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere. In Yemen, Riyadh intervened to restore a government overthrown by Iran-backed groups; while in Lebanon, the Saudis forced the resignation of a prime minister in 2017 to the displeasure of Hezbollah backed by Iran. The new peace deal stands to change all this, ending policies that have not benefited either country.
Some observers have argued that the Gulf is siding with China over the U.S. due to the latter’s inclination toward Israel but this is unlikely to be correct, as an increasing number of states move to formally recognizing Tel Aviv. In fact, the U.A.E. and Saudis have been working to “normalize” relations with Israel to ensure security. Riyadh, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also sought to encourage diplomacy, having initiated dialogue with Iran through Iraq for over a year before China stepped in.
Pakistan cannot afford to let itself be marginalized in this new world order, especially with Gwadar port already a major part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The country also cannot afford to alienate the Gulf states, which employ a large of Pakistanis that send back remittances propping up the country’s economy.