London CNN — When Saudi Arabia and Iran buried the hatchet in Beijing on Friday, it was a game-changing moment both for a Middle East shaped by their decades-old rivalry, and for China’s growing influence in the oil-rich region.
The announcement was surprising yet expected. The two regional powerhouses have been in talks to re-establish diplomatic relations for nearly two years. At times, negotiators seemed to drag their feet, the deep distrust between the two countries appearing immovable.
Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia were unfolding at the same time as negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the 2016 nuclear deal were faltering. The outcomes of both sets of Iran talks seemed interlinked – Riyadh and Washington have long walked in lockstep on foreign policy.
But a shift in regional alliances is afoot. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US has become strained in recent years, while China’s standing has risen. Unlike Washington, Beijing has shown an ability to transcend the many rivalries that criss-cross the Middle East. China has forged good diplomatic relations with countries across the region, driven by strengthening economic ties, without the Western lectures on human rights.
In retrospect, Beijing has been poised to broker the conflict-ridden Middle East’s latest diplomatic breakthrough for years, simultaneously underscoring the US’ diminishing regional influence.
“While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other’s throats also benefits the United States,” Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute, tweeted Friday.