What To Make Of ‘Atheist’ China’s Role In The Sunni-Shia Handshake – OpEd


By Ben Joseph

(UCA News) — China is actively projecting itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East, where it reportedly brokered a peace deal despite the mutual suspicions of Shias and Sunnis. But the deal also serves as a reminder that trade and commerce can achieve what religion continuously fails to achieve.

Crude Oil, the largest traded commodity that has been a main reason for international conflicts, has also ensured the prosperity of some 578 million people in the Middle East, despite them being divided into several lines of religion, class, culture, ethnicity, and linguistic affiliations in their daily dealings.

China’s director of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, termed the March 10 deal signed by Saudi Arabia and Iran as “facilitating the proper settlement of hot-spot issues around the world.” The deal shows China’s economic clout to force a cash-rich Saudi Arabia and a sanctions-hit Iran to fall into line.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top exporter and producer of oil, has anchored its future plans in tandem with China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, as part of Vision 2030, the country’s mega economic transformation plan from fossil fuels.

Iran, facing US-led international sanctions over its nuclear programs, and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, has already signed a 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with China.

Just three months into the peace deal, the dove of peace has fluttered high. It was rare in this violence-hit, war-ravaged area of the world. In his latest visit on June 16, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan headed to Tehran to officially inaugurate the nation’s embassy on June 17.

Two days before that, on June 15, more than 3,500 Chinese and Arab representatives gathered in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for a major business conference in which dozens of deals worth billions of dollars were inked.

The first day of the 10th Arab-China Business Conference saw a total of 30 investment agreements worth US$10 billion signed, covering a wide range of sectors including vital agriculture supply chains, renewables, technology, real estate, minerals, tourism, and healthcare.

In another gesture that portents well for peace in the Middle East, Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League, which is expected to put an end to the 12-year-old war and the refugee crisis in Syria where arch-rivals Riyadh and Tehran used to support opposing sides.

The Arab world reciprocated the communist nation’s goodwill by erasing the last blot on its human rights escutcheon. A delegation of diplomats from the Arab League from May 30 to June 2 visited China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims are reported to be housed in “re-education camps.”

The delegation said the “region does not match what is portrayed by Western media.”

Led by the US, the Western world has been accusing China of grave human rights violations, including the use of facial recognition technologies against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The US and other European nations had made vain attempts to debate human rights in Xinjiang on global fora, including the United Nations in October 2022.

With the clean chit on the Uyghur Muslims, China currently stands clear of its last mote in the eye of human rights. The visit by a 34-member group from 16 Arab countries has helped remove the last hurdle to the free flow of investment from Gulf sovereign wealth funds, which are currently parked in investments in the US and the European Union, to China.

China is currently an industrial powerhouse that churns out 18 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) compared with 12 percent from the US. It is also the world’s chief creditor doling out capital for infrastructure and industrial projects to 148 nations.

The Iranian-Saudi bonhomie will get a shot in the arm when Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi sets foot on Saudi soil to mark the first visit by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came calling for a regional meeting in Mecca in 2012.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran after protesters stormed its diplomatic outposts after prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed in 1962.

Historically, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and a monarchy made rich by petrodollars, wanted numero uno status in the entire Islamic world. However, the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 posed an obstacle to Saudi Arabia’s leadership ambitions because Iranian leaders wanted their revolutionary theocracy exported to other nations.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab and a major Iranian adversary, tilted the balance of power in favor of Iran. The uprisings in 2011, called the Arab Spring, saw both nations vying for influence, leading to a further deterioration of mutual trust.

External factors also contributed to the intensification. Saudi Arabia received whole-hearted support from the US administration, which wanted to counter Iranian influence, and Israel, perceiving Iran as a threat, aligned with Saudi Arabia.

After a long-time, the foes buried the hatchet. Saudi Arabia has started holding talks to end the eight-year-old war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and the ousted government, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

Saudi ambassador, Mohammed Al-Jaber, has already traveled to the capital Sana’a to “stabilize” a lapsed truce deal.

With the good old days returning to Syria and Yemen, years of political vacuum, and institutional paralysis in Lebanon, the only Christian-majority nation in the Middle East will wane in the foreseeable future.

Following the Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement, peace prospects also loom large over Palestine, whose president Mahmoud Abbas visited China on June 14 and signed a “strategic partnership.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia have opened the door for China to forge a unified market in the Middle East with its eventual aim to fuse Asia and Europe into a single trading block, for which peace is a prerequisite.

The developments in the Middle East should make us wonder if the forces of the market are stronger than the power and promise religion offers. Is the market fast replacing religion?

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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