The Saudis and Iranians break bread in Beijing

Briefly: In a surprise announcement on Friday, long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties. The deal was brokered by (and unveiled in) China.

Some context: The Saudis broke off ties in 2016 after protestors ransacked Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran. But the rivalry goes back decades and has been getting messier: proxy wars in the region, a drone attack on the Saudi oil industry, Iran’s nuclear program… the list is longer than an Oscars acceptance speech.

So why’d they do this deal?

  • 🇮🇷 After years of isolation and crippling US sanctions, Iran desperately needed the kind of legitimacy and solidarity that only China could offer.
  • 🇸🇦 The Saudis wanted to hedge their bets and show Washington that they’ve got other options, after years of tension with their US allies.
  • 🇨🇳 The world’s largest oil importer needed stability in the world’s key oil region. Plus, China wanted to show that it’s a global power, like the US.

Intrigue’s take: Peace is good, no matter the broker. But the details can reveal broader trends. In this case, three things come to mind:

First, it was novel to see such an historic deal happen without the US in the room. And yet… the US was in the room by clearly being on the mind of each signatory. 

Second, energy independence has freed the US to focus elsewhere (eg, Ukraine, East Asia). But a major oil importer like China is still tied to the Middle East, so it’ll only get more involved in the region. And that’s no fun (just ask the US).

And third, Iran and Saudi still loathe each other. This deal is less about them burying the hatchet, and more about them hedging against the US and courting China.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal; it’s just more nuanced than it seems.

Also worth noting: