March 2023

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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To no one’s surprise, the joint tripartite statement released on March 10 by Iran, Saudi Arabia and China was at the center of international media coverage of Beijing’s engagement within the wider Mediterranean region in March. This joint statement, which has come to be referred to as the “Beijing Agreement,” was the result of undisclosed talks between Saudi and Iranian officials in Beijing on March 6-10. As a consequence of this surprise China-brokered deal, the two Middle Eastern rivals affirmed their commitment to restoring bilateral diplomatic relations, to reviving security, trade and technology cooperation agreements, and to together “enhancing regional and international peace and security.”

This apparent reconciliation came on the heels of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi’s state visit to Beijing last month, in the wake of which there was intense discussion among experts on whether China could mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. Nowhere was the debate more heated than in Iranian media, and despite the Beijing Agreement seemingly justifying the hopeful pro-China perspectives of more conservative analysts, the media debate on the merits of Iran’s partnership with the People’s Republic continues unbothered.

This discussion took the form of Iranian commentators attempting to answer why Tehran accepted Chinese mediation. According to former ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Mohammad Shariati-Dehaghan, interviewed by the reformist newspaper Etemad, “Iran was forced to accept China's mediation in this matter, because our only gateway to the outside world is China.” [1] For Shariati-Dehaghan, the fact that Beijing is the ruling conservative government’s only powerful international partner is also why Tehran “was forced to remain silent against the harsh and anti-Iranian statements made in the China-Gulf Cooperation Council [December 2022] joint statement.” Nevertheless, the former ambassador is content with the agreement as “the step taken in Beijing, despite all the weaknesses, shortcomings, delays, procrastination and costs, is a happy step” as it could also hopefully lead to solving the problems in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Other Iranian analysts and experts interviewed for this Etemad article echoed this reserved optimism, as well as distrust toward Beijing and laments over the weakness of Tehran’s foreign policy.

On the other hand, according to Iran, the Iranian government’s official newspaper, Tehran was not forced to acquiesce to Chinese mediation but rather has its own good reasons to accept Beijing’s diplomatic efforts. [2] Iranian motivations include: the two actors’ extensive bilateral economic relations, shared opposition to American imperialism, common interest in establishing a new multipolar international order, and Beijing’s “conscientious mediation” (i.e., its lack of desire to impose its ideology abroad). The article also lists possible Saudi reasons as well, including: “trying to establish a more balanced foreign policy and to get out of America’s dictatorial authority” and the increased importance of Beijing with respect to Washington in both the economic and diplomatic spheres. It concluded by praising China’s approach to mediation, characterized by balancing and “not picking sides,” with respect to the “colonial” diplomatic approach of the United States.

On this note, the implications that this Middle Eastern rapprochement will have on the global Sino-American confrontation was also a recurring motif in this month’s Iranian media discourse. For instance, according to Morteza Behrouzifar, an energy expert interviewed by Sharq, “China wants to play the traditional role of the US in the Middle East and, in exchange for ensuring the security of the region, it will enjoy stable sources of energy and guarantee its economic growth.” [3] Despite China’s growing regional prominence being a result of Washington’s increasing disengagement from the Middle East, Behrouzifar nevertheless warned that “America will not simply hand over this region to China” whose future reaction to these developments, according to him and other experts consulted for this article, currently remains a mystery.

There was also interest among Iranian commentators analyzing China’s motivations for getting involved in Middle Eastern politics. For Kurush Ahmadi, writing for Etemad, Beijing’s playing a major role in mediating Saudi-Iranian tensions is “unexpected (…), but not surprising” as “compared to other major powers, China is the most dependent on oil and gas from the Persian Gulf, so that if there is a conflict in the Gulf, China will suffer the most.” [4] Mohammad Javad Qahremani, a researcher of China issues, made a similar argument when interviewed by Donya-ye Eqtesad, stating that “stability in this region is still an important priority for China [as] any instability can seriously endanger the energy supply and the security of Beijing's investments, especially in the southern countries of the Persian Gulf.” [5] For Qahremani, this diplomatic intervention was one of the few options that Beijing had on the table to prevent the recent marginalization of diplomacy from escalating into a possible military crisis. In the very same article, Hossein Siyahi, offered a different take. For this researcher of foreign policy issues, “China wants to show that regardless of personal interests such as economic and energy issues, it can use diplomatic skills to promote peace and stability. Considering Camp David, Daytona, Good Friday, the Suez Crisis, and the Oslo Accords, all of which were carried out by the US or its top allies, China's action shows that it alone is capable of doing what until a decade or two ago the West could do together.”

On the other side of the Gulf, Saudi analysts also took a crack at understanding China’s reasons for inserting itself in Middle East tensions. In Okaz, Ahmad al-Jumayʿa posited that Beijing got involved due to it viewing “the countries of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular – not only as oil suppliers, but also as important allies and as part of a Silk Road, which was and will be the China’s economic and cultural objective the region and the world.” [6] Meanwhile, Bina al-Mulhim in an article for al-Riyadh, while recognizing China’s growing global and regional influence, portrayed (somewhat simplistically) the Beijing Agreement as a Saudi diplomatic achievement first and foremost “as the Saudi-Iranian agreement brokered by China revealed that the Saudi decisions are based on Saudi interests only and did not take into consideration the position of any other country.” [7]

There were many analyses of the Beijing Agreement also from other Arab countries of the Middle East. For example, for the president of the Lebanese Chinese Business Association ʿAli Mahmud al-ʿAbdallah, in an article for the Lebanese newspaper al-Liwa, stated that the agreement “represents a new dawn in the Arab-Chinese partnership.” [8] Considering the rapid growth and the strength of China-Arab relations in the fields of energy, investment, telecommunications and trade over the last couple of decades, he predicted that in the coming years, more diplomatic efforts will be made to strengthen the relationship between the Arab world and the People’s Republic. Moreover, he expressed his hope “that China will be strongly involved in resolving conflicts in the region and the world, to play its natural role as a rising global economic and political pole capable of changing history.” Similar opinion pieces that celebrated China’s new regional role and the decline of the West were also published in the Kuwaiti and Algerian press. [9]

However, not all Arab analysts share this optimistic view of China’s possible security role in the Middle East. For example, Nizar ʿAbd al-Qadir, also writing for al-Liwa, was much more skeptical on whether China’s efforts to “restore Iran to its legitimate status and ending its isolation will lead to Tehran actually abandoning the idea of exporting the revolution and dominating neighboring countries” especially in the case of Lebanon and Iranian support for Hezbollah. [10]

Less enthusiastic takes on the Beijing Agreement also dominated the Israeli press, as the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could obstruct Israel’s own plans to normalize its relations with Riyadh and establish an anti-Iranian bloc in the region. [11] However, not all Israeli analysts share this negative outlook on the future of Tel Aviv’s regional diplomatic initiatives. According to veteran journalist and war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, due to Saudi Arabia needing Israeli help to obtain advanced weapons systems from the US, “it can be assumed that the renewal of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not change this set of interests and that Saudi Arabia will not change its policy towards Israel or towards the Abraham Accords.” [12] What instead worries Ben-Yishai is that “China is strengthening its grip on the Middle East as a result of the renewing of these relations at the expense of the US, which is our patron power in the region.” Nevertheless, China’s growing presence in the Middle East is not anathema to all Israelis. For instance, analyst Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom argued in an article for Mareev that “Israel must undoubtedly tighten its strategic ties with China and no longer be content with solely ‘special relations’ with the US.” [13]

There was interest for the Beijing Agreement also in Europe. In a column for Le Monde, Sciences Po professor Jean-Pierre Filiu posited that “access to the status of global power requires the capacity for initiative in the Middle East, not only economically and militarily but also diplomatically.” [14] It is for this reason, favored by the context created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that Xi Jinping has decided to “add diplomatic mediation to the range of his instruments of power in the Middle East.” This then led to the Beijing Agreement, a turning point which could lead to “the reorganization of the Middle East into a ‘post-American’ order.”

A more critical take is offered by Filippo Fasulo, the Co-Head Geoeconomics Centre of the Italian think tank ISPI, who reconsidered China’s contribution to the agreement by noting how Beijing entered the Saudi-Iranian mediation process during its final stages. He claimed, however, that this late intervention “may paradoxically be a point of strength for Xi, who can claim how his ‘blessing’ is viewed positively.” [15] Moreover, he also stated that “this is a first step by China as a ‘responsible’ actor that will have to be tested in case there is fallout from the Iran-Saudi crisis. In short, Xi will have to demonstrate what it means in practical terms for peace to have Chinese political support.”

Nevertheless, speculation abounded on whether China’s diplomatic success in the Middle East could translate into future Chinese-led mediation initiatives elsewhere, in particular regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war and the Palestinian question. [16] In both aforementioned conflicts, China has managed to maintain more or less positive relations with both sides. The same is true with regard to the rising tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Unlike European countries, China has managed to balance the two Maghrebi rivals and avoid getting entangled in the Western Sahara dispute. However, as we have previously reported, both Rabat and Algiers over the last year have been hoping to get Beijing on their side. However, Algeria’s recent diplomatic moves towards China and expressed interest in acquiring Chinese military tech, especially drones, led to a rather explicit Hespress article from Moroccan journalist Mohamed Jaouad El Kanabi. While recognizing as “quite natural that the senile regime in Algiers makes overtures toward Beijing… to acquire anti-drone systems and to attempt to convince it that Algeria was not a party to the Sahara conflict and that Algiers simply wishes to secure its borders,” El Kanabi nevertheless reserved no harsh words towards Beijing as he is sure that China will not make any deal with the “senile diaper-wearing [Algerian People's National Army]” as “Beijing has no intention of shooting itself in the foot… by selling systems that exploit the shortcomings of their own drones sold in the region, of which Morocco has a great fleet.” Besides being a colorful read, this article is indicative of how, despite the apparent success of the Beijing Agreement and the desire of all regional actors to have the People’s Republic on their side, China, with its growing diplomatic and security role in the wider Mediterranean, must still be careful of not running afoul of other the numerous international disputes that plague the region.

We conclude this month’s edition of the ChinaMed Observer, which was monopolized by the Beijing Agreement, with a quick recap of coverage of Chinese economic, investment and tech news from across the wider Mediterranean. For instance, in Türkiye – still reeling from last month’s disastrous earthquake (the humanitarian response to which received a notable Chinese contribution [17]) – the government implemented a controversial 40% additional customs duty on electric vehicles imported from China, likely to protect the recently launched Turkish electric car manufacturer Togg from competition from Chinese brands like BYD, leading to outcry from Chinese officials and the possibility of retaliatory measures. [18] 

Meanwhile, the Emirati Policy Center, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank, published a report on China’s Digital Strategy and its global and regional technology implications, noting that while “the Gulf states represent an ideal fertile land for the implementation of some components of China’s digital strategy [as] the region can offer a flexible and attractive financial environment together with political stability,” Gulf countries should nevertheless “keep in mind the potential risks of deepening the technological partnership with Beijing, as this could lead to increased pressure due to the escalating technological competition between China and the United States." [19] The report concluded by stating that “Gulf powers will have to create a balanced approach between the two powers in the frame of the ‘strategic hedging’ policy and a diversification of international partnerships that the Gulf states are embracing.”

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[1] Payamha-ye tavafoq-e Pekan پیام های توافق پکن [Messages of the Beijing Agreement], Etemad, March 12, 2023, link

[2] Cin dar bazi-e hasel-e jamʿ-e mosbat-e Iran va ʿArabestan چین در بازی حاصل جمع مثبت ایران و عربستان [China in the Iran-Saudi Arabia positive-sum game], Iran, March 13, 2023, link.

[3] Moʿedele-ye cini معادله چینی [The Chinese equation], Sharq, March 12, 2023, link.

[4] Kurush Ahmadi, Tavafoq-e Iran va ʿArabestan va naqsh-e Cin توافق ایران و عربستان و نقش چین [The Iran-Saudi agreement and China’s role], Etemad, March 13, 2023, link.

[5] Saʿide Sadat Fehri, Bazdarandeghi-e narm-e Xi dar Khalij-e Fars بازدارندگی نرم شی در خلیج فارس [Xi’s soft deterrence in the Persian Gulf], Donya-ye Eqtesad, March 15, 2023, link.

[6] Ahmad al-Jumayʿa, Tariq al-harir fi ittifaq al-saʿudi al-irani «طريق الحرير» في الاتفاق السعودي – الإيراني [The Silk Road in the Saudi-Iranian agreement], Okaz, March 15, 2023, link.

[7] Bina al-Mulhim, Iran fi zhill ittifaqiyat al-taqat al-saʿudiyat al-siniya إيران في ظل اتفاقية الثقة السعودية الصينية [Iran in light of confidence agreement between Saudi Arabia and China], al-Riyadh, March 15, 2023, link.

[8] ʿAli Mahmud al-ʿAbdallah, Baʿd al-ittifaq al-saʿudi al-irani al-tarikhi bi-riʿayat siniya: marhalat waʿida fi al-shirakat al-ʿarabiyat al-siniya بعد الاتفاق السعودي - الإيراني التاريخي برعاية صينية: مرحلة واعدة في الشراكة العربية – الصينية [After the Saudi-Iranian agreement under Chinese initiative: a promising step in Sino-Arab partnership], al-Liwa, March 31, 2023, link.

[9] Elia G. Maghnayer, Al-Sin fi qalb al-sharq al-awsat ʿabra al-bawabat al-saʿudiya al-iraniya  الصين في قلب الشرق الأوسط عبر البوابة السعودية – الإيرانية [China in the heart of the Middle East through the Saudi-Iranian gate], al-Rai, March 14, 2023, link.

[10] Chems Eddine Chitour, La civilisation confucéenne réconcilie Riyad et Téhéran: les vrais défis de l’Islam, [The Confucian civilization reconciles Riyadh and Tehran: Islam’s real challenges], Le Soir d’Algérie, March 21, 2023, link.

[11] Nizar ʿAbd al-Qadir,Al-ittifaq al-sini: salam barid wa-Iran lan tufakkika Hizballah الاتفاق الصيني: سلام بارد وإيران لن تفكك حزب الله [The Chinese agreement: a cold peace and Iran won’t dismantle Hezbollah], al-Liwa, March 22, 2023, link.

[12] Ron Ben-Yishai, Washington Safga Stirat Lekhi Nosefet MiSaudia וושינגטון ספגה סטירת לחי נוספת מסעודיה [Washington received another slap in the face from Saudi Arabia], Ynet, March 10, 2023, link.

[13] Anat Hochberg-Marom, HaYim HaTivukh HaSini Ben Saudia LeYiran Yeshane Et HaMizrakh HaTikhon האם התיווך הסיני בין סעודיה לאיראן ישנה את המזרח התיכון? [Will the Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran change the Middle East?], Maariv, March 11, 2023, link.

[14] Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Moyen-Orient portera-t-il chance à la Chine? [Will the Middle east bring luck to China?], Le Monde, March 19, 2023, link.

[15] Cina, c’è un nuovo attore in Medio Oriente [China, there is a new actor in the Middle East], ISPI, 13 March, 2023, link.

[16] Inma Bonet Bailén, China se postula como negociador responsable en la guerra de Ucrania [China puts itself forward as responsible negotiator in the Ukraine war], El Pais, 18 March, 2023, link; Emanuele Rossi, La Cina fa sul serio in Medio Oriente? Gli appunti di Scita [Is China serious about the Middle East? Scita’s comments], Formiche, 13 March, 2023, link.

[17] Afet bölgesinde Çinlilerle 8 gün 1: Uluslararası yardımlarda Çin’in müstesna yeri [8 days with the Chinese rescue team in the disaster area, day 1 : China's exceptional place in international aid], Aydınlık Gazetesi, 11 March, 2023, link.

[18] “‘Türk seddi’ Çin’de gündem: Çin menşeili elektrikli araçlara yüzde 40 ek vergi getirilmesini tartışıyorlar” [The 'Turkish Great Wall' is on the agenda in China: They are discussing the 40 percent additional tax on electric vehicles of Chinese origin], Hurriyet Gazetesi, 9 March, 2023, link.

[19] Istratijiya al-Sin al-raqamiya: khatwa nahwa tashkil qawaʿid al-nizham al-tiknuluji al-ʿalami استراتيجية الصين الرقمية: خطوة نحو تشكيل قواعد النظام التكنولوجي العالمي [China’s digital strategy: a step toward shaping the rules of the global technological order], EPC, March 31, 2023, link.

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Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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