One Navy For All of the Middle East?

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Naval vessels sail in parade formation (Image Credit: Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files)

In a surprising turn of events, regional heavyweights and traditional enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran, alongside other Gulf states, have agreed to form a joint naval alliance. Although the exact details have yet to be formally announced, analysts are already forecasting major geopolitical implications, within and beyond the Middle East, as a result of this deal. 

With around one-third of the world’s oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz, hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran has long affected more than just the region. Maintaining regional peace has therefore always been a top priority for international actors, who all share an interest in preventing nightmare scenarios of 100$ oil barrels energy experts warn of. With this alliance, some analysts are hoping for a new era in the global energy market. Genuine steps toward reconciliation between the two nations are underway. From the trivial, like Iranian contestant Younes Shahmoradi winning $800,000 in a Saudi Arabian reading contest, to the consequential, like the resuming of commercial flights, olive branches are being extended across the strait every day. If this trend holds, and the two players stay true to the spirit of compromise behind this alliance, then the stabilization of the region, and of global oil prices, does indeed appear more plausible than ever before. 

However, other analysts doubt the deal’s sustainability. Tim Hawkins, the spokesperson for the US 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, has called the alliance one that “defies reason.” Over the past two years, Iran has attacked fifteen internationally flagged ships, he said. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp), a subsection of the Iranian government, also provides over $700 million in funding to the Hezbollah group annually – a group that has openly called Saudi Arabia “the king of terrorism” among other insults and threats. In Hawkins view, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s national interests are irrevocable, rooted in fundamentally different and seemingly uncompromisable interpretations of Islam. Any deal between them, Tim Hawkins and many others argue, will not last.

Only time will tell if this deal truly opens a new chapter in Middle Eastern history. What is certain is China’s indisputable diplomatic victory as the mediator of this alliance. For seven years, the United States – the historic mediator in the Middle East – has been unable to resolve the dilemma that is Saudi- Iran relations. In just a few weeks, China managed. Furthermore, with talks of expanding the alliance to encompass India, Pakistan and most of Asia, China is utilizing this deal to ease other historic tensions, springboarding their aspirations of a China-led Asia.

Chinese diplomacy is growing into a formidable institution fitting of an economic superpower, evident in their mediation in not just the Middle East, but Africa and Asia too. The Middle East has drifted out of the United States’ orbit – this much the alliance makes clear.

Written by Si Kai Feng

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