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Maneuvering minefields: China’s Xi contemplates visiting Saudi Arabia

By James M. Dorsey

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hit all the right cords when he spoke virtually with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, at a meeting of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee last month.

Mr. Wang told Mr. Bin Farhan: “China attaches great importance to the development of China-Saudi Arabia relations and puts Saudi Arabia at a priority position in China’s overall diplomacy, its diplomacy with the Middle East region in particular.”

Mr. Wang’s statement came amid Saudi reports, yet to be confirmed by China, of a pending visit by President Xi Jinping to the kingdom before the end of the year.

Mr. Xi will likely meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a Group of 20 summit in Bali later this month.

The Saudi reports did not mention the Chinese leader stopping in other countries, particularly Iran.

The reports’ focus on the kingdom and Mr. Wang’s remarks boosted Saudi hopes that Beijing may abandon its balancing act between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic.

“This statement has been what the Saudis sought for at least ten years. The Saudi leadership quietly but persistently urged Beijing to decide which ally was more important — Riyadh or its biggest rival Iran,” said Steve Rodan, author of the China in the Middle East newsletter.

That may be jumping to conclusions.

The timing of a possible Xi visit to exploit strains in Saudi-US relations makes perfect sense.

However, the optics of Mr. Xi bypassing Iran because of sustained anti-government protests may distort the reality of a continued Chinese effort to strike a balance in its regional relationships.

If anything,  US and European sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine have magnified Iran’s importance as China, and Central Asian, and Caucasian nations put flesh on efforts to create a viable transport corridor to Europe that circumvents Russian territory.

Moreover, the potential timing of a Xi visit also takes on added significance after Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with the United States that warned of an imminent Iranian attack on targets in the kingdom and predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.

In response, the US and other Gulf countries have raised the level of alert for their military forces.

Saudi officials said the attacks would bolster Iran’s contention that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel had instigated the more than six-week-long protests that have rattled the regime in Tehran.

Last month, Iran said it had arrested nine European nationals for their alleged role in the protests.

Iranian security forces have cracked down on protesters most brutally in the Kurdish and Baloch provinces of the countries where ethnic tensions have long simmered and alleged past foreign support hoped to spark unrest that would destabilize the regime.

In the past two months, Iran has launched missile and drone attacks on Iranian Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. In one instance, a US warplane downed an Iranian projectile headed toward the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

In September, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned Saudi Arabia to rein in coverage of the protests by a Saudi-backed, London-based, Farsi-language satellite news channel, Iran International, which is widely followed in Iran.

Iran International broadcasts on its television shows and social media handles videos of Iranian protests and the crackdown by security forces that have so far failed to quell the unrest.

Iran has demanded, even before the eruption of the protests, that Saudi Arabia close down Iran International.

“I warn the Saudi regime to control your media, or the smoke will go in your eyes,” Mr.  Salami said as he attended military drills in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The commander added, “this is our last warning because you are interfering in our internal affairs through these media. You are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable.”

Mr. Salami also intended to dissuade Saudi Arabia from tightening its security ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia has refused to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in formally recognizing Israel as long as the Palestinian problem is not resolved but has forged close informal relations with the Jewish state.

“You are relying on an Israel which is collapsing, and this will be the end of your era,” Mr. Salami thundered.

Mr. Salami’s warning contrasted starkly with comments the same week by a top advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati. Mr. Velayati called for the reopening of embassies to facilitate a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh.

“We are neighbours of Saudi Arabia, and we must coexist. The embassies of the two countries should reopen to solve our problems in a better way,” Mr. Velayati said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran closed their embassies in each other’s capital after a mob ransacked the kingdom’s mission in Tehran in protest against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.

Beyond signalling potential splits in the regime, Mr. Velayati’s remarks appeared designed to salvage Iraqi-sponsored efforts to manage deep-seated Saudi-Iranian differences encouraged by both China and the United States.

Concern that Iran could attack Saudi Arabia is, at least partly, grounded in an assumed Iranian belief that the US-Saudi rift means that the United States may not be willing to defend the kingdom.

Relations became even more strained after the kingdom, in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s pilgrimage in July to Saudi Arabia, backed a cut rather than an increase in OPEC+ oil production.

The strains created an opportunity for China, which has so far gone out of its way to remain aloof from the Middle East myriad conflicts.

China’s ability to do so may be shrinking.

Mr. Xi is certain to want to exploit the most recent spat in US-Saudi relations. His problem is that the spat highlights the opportunity and the minefield the Chinese leader has to navigate.

If experience is anything to go by, Mr. Xi risks becoming the latest leader to be sucked into Middle Eastern conflicts, irrespective of whether they wanted to get involved.

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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.