China showed the world the power that it is

Jason Greenblatt
Jason Greenblatt
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I must offer my congratulations, albeit reluctantly, to the People’s Republic of China for the agreement they brokered last week which restores diplomatic ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a significant achievement, even if potentially troubling for the United States and Israel. It’s an achievement that the United States did not play a role in. We have only ourselves to blame.

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It is too early to predict how this agreement will play out. While the Biden Administration spent a significant amount of time alienating Saudi Arabia and others in the Middle East, China continued to build strong ties in the Middle East. China showed the world the power that it is. For the United States to pretend otherwise is not just foolish, it is dangerous.

Who can blame China for seeking this role? The tensions between China and the United States grow with each passing month. The distance between the United States and Saudi Arabia (and some of our other allies in the Middle East) continues to grow. The Biden Administration and some in Congress have sent clear signals that Saudi Arabia ought to do their bidding, or else. That is not a way to treat an important ally, one critical to the security of the region. While the long-standing relationship between the United States and the Kingdom remains important to both countries, and should remain important and strong, the Biden Administration has lost its way in the Middle East.

The very significant economic ties of China to Saudi Arabia cannot be ignored. China is one of the most important purchasers of Saudi oil. China, of course, needs to ensure the safe passage of that oil from Saudi Arabia and others in the region to China. China also has significant leverage in Iran and plays a significant role in Iran’s economy. While the Biden Administration and Congress were busy complaining about oil prices, China was busy further cementing their ties to the Kingdom. Iran knew this, Saudi Arabia knew this, and China knew this. Did the Biden Administration know this?

From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, who can blame them for taking this approach? The most important job of Saudi’s leadership is to protect its people and its assets. Saudi leadership have charted a new course for the Kingdom. Not only is it staggering in scope, it is being implemented on the ground. The progress is fast and real. Saudi Arabia had a choice of waiting for a United States that continued to be ambiguous about its stance on Iran and one that began drifting away from the region, paying mere lip service to Saudi Arabia and others as they were threatened by Iran. Can Saudi Arabia and others in the region continue to count on the United States as a reliable ally? They aren’t sure. They aren’t wrong.

What does this mean to the Abraham Accords and Israel? It is too soon to tell, and for the moment we should stay away from dire predictions that the Abraham Accords are over or that Saudi Arabia will never normalize relations with Israel. The Abraham Accords and Saudi Arabia’s potential relationship with Israel are not the topic of the day. We can look to the United Arab Emirates to understand how a country can manage to have a strong, meaningful and growing relationship with Israel while at the same time have a diplomatic relationship with Iran. The UAE leadership has been smart, careful and realistic in managing both relationships. The approach we are seeing today between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not a new approach. It is one that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been advocating for some time. But now they have China (unfortunately not the United States) to thank for bringing this approach to life. From a Saudi perspective, this is nothing more that realistic diplomacy, protective of the Kingdom and its plans.

When it comes to Israel, recall that only 24 hours ahead of the Iran-Saudi Arabia announcement news broke about Saudi Arabia’s requests for it to normalize relations with Israel. Whether these requests are realistic or achievable remains to be seen. The Saudi-Iran agreement is not about the Abraham Accords or Israel for the moment. It is about Saudi Arabia’s needs and goals, as well as those of Iran and China. Israel’s focus should be on the continued threat from Iran, both directly as well as through its terror proxies. Saudi Arabia will pay very close attention to the potential threats to it from Iran as well. They understand that well. This agreement by the Kingdom is not based on wishful thinking.

Some argue this was intended to be a slap in the Biden’s administration’s face. While it certainly is not good for the Biden Administration that the traditional role of the United States was played instead by China, this is not a direct slap in the face of the Biden Administration, even if the administration was taken by surprise. But if the Biden Administration does not get its full attention back on the Middle East it may find more unpleasant surprises that are not helpful to the interests of the United States. Either way, we are very likely to find China playing a bigger and more important role in the Middle East. China sees significant opportunity in the Middle East and rightly so. China has no problem respecting Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East. It does not threaten to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It does not make unrealistic demands from Saudi Arabia or treat it as an unimportant partner. Now it is up to the Biden Administration to see if it can work with China so that China’s involvement in the Middle East will be a positive one for the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

The Biden Administration would do well to take a realistic diplomacy approach. Fix what we can, work with friends, allies, competitors and others where we can, and do so with eyes open, eyeing every opportunity, threat and possibility. America and our Middle East allies deserve no less.

Jason D. Greenblatt served as White House Middle East envoy in the Trump Administration. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book “In the Path of Abraham.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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