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Kevin Brown

May 22nd, 2023

China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Kevin Brown

May 22nd, 2023

China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In this article, Kevin Brown explores the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under Chinese auspices. Brown shows that the process is fueled by a combination of the Middle Eastern states’ proclivity towards the Chinese development model and a distaste for the American alternative.



The following article will examine Iran and Saudi Arabia’s restoration of bilateral diplomatic relations after breaking ties in 2016. This piece discusses why the two  regimes saw the People’s Republic of China (PRC ) as a mediator to broker a mutual agreement. Common interests spurned by the Ukraine war caused Riyadh and Tehran to reconcile, given Beijing’s economic links to the Saudi Royal Family and Iran’s clerics. It will also examine why forces such as hyperpolarization and inconsistent policy by the United States make it a less appealing partner for authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes.

The Economic and Ideological Commonalties

China is an authoritarian non-Muslim power outside the Middle East, with inherent regional appeal beyond developmental economics. The PRC is an effective middleman for the two opposing parties as it shares their mutual governing principles without picking a sectarian side. It is a trait that benefits Beijing’s growing ties with Riyadh and Tehran and its overall political and economic policies in the Middle East.

China’s commercial relations with the two longtime Middle Eastern rivals helped lay the groundwork for diplomatic progress; Beijing diversified its economic relationships with the two rivals beyond oil to include joint ventures across many industries,[i] making China a top foreign investor in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Chinese firms are critical fossil fuel infrastructure providers in Iran and the Gulf region.[ii]  At the same time, they have become prominent players in the construction and manufacturing sectors across the Middle East.[iii]  Saudi Arabia[iv] and Iran[v] are important export markets for Chinese-made goods and services.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are invested in Beijing’s authoritarian development model,[vi] a strategy that has helped China win influence from Serbia[vii] to Honduras.[viii] This concept calls for autocratic elites to further their respective countries’ economic advancement while maintaining their conservative  roots.

Saudi Arabia[ix] and Iran[x] have attempted a similar path with natural resource-driven, elite-guided development to open and diversify their economies into industries besides oil. Iran used COVID to accelerate growth in traditional sectors like services and manufacturing.[xi] The House of Saud wants to follow the path of its Arab Gulf neighbors by adding tourism,[xii] airlines,[xiii] and start-ups[xiv] into the Kingdom’s financial portfolio. These plans tie into Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative as the two countries seek to orient their financial futures toward China and Asia rather than with the West.

Saudi Arabia and Iran endorsed the Hong Kong Security Law[xv] and even Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs at the United Nations.[xvi] China is also making strides in the international commodity system through the Persian/Arabian Gulf, as Iran has used the renminbi[xvii] to conduct its oil trade to sidestep American sanctions. Saudi Arabia has also considered selling commodities in Chinese currency since the start of the Ukraine War.[xviii]

American Attitudes and Partisanship

In addition to shared values and economics, the constantly shifting American attitude towards Saudi Arabia and Iran helped China broker a deal. Post-Cold War US presidents have shifted between rapprochement and hostility towards Riyadh and Tehran depending on the political mood. President Barack Obama, for example, prioritized disengagement from the region. His administration sought to soothe a war-weary American public by withdrawing from Iraq while reaching a settlement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

However, Trump made undoing Obama’s policies a key fixture of his four years in office, where he dropped any interest in negotiations with Iran. Trump’s foreign policy team sharply reversed course and prioritized creating international unity against Iran, with the support of Saudi Arabia as a critical pillar of this strategy. The former president made Saudi Arabia his first foreign trip as President of the United States, where he pushed historical deals with the Kingdom to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.[xix] Trump’s Administration used Iran as a wedge to broker recognition between Israel and some Arab Gulf States, transforming Middle Eastern relations.[xx]

The Biden Administration’s strategy of casting geopolitics as a struggle between democracy and autocracy deepens Chinese appeal.[xxi] This messaging is part of a strategy that the two previous administrations also pursued, where presidents attempt to undo policies implemented by their predecessors.

These trends have translated into President Biden placing human rights, climate change, and the “liberal order” at the forefront of his foreign policy.[xxii] Biden’s Administration has pursued these policies to the distaste of autocratic oil-dependent Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, who universally oppose these themes despite their differences.[xxiii]

Riyadh’s and Tehran’s Motivations

Saudi Arabia especially feels neglected by Washington’s current focus on Ukraine and East Asia, pressuring Prince Mohammed bin Salman to seek mediation with Teheran without American support. The Yemen conflict and a standoff with Tehran were not in Saudi Arabia’s interests, serving as a resource drain and inhibitor to modernization efforts. As the Ukraine war demonstrates, other pressing challenges prevented Trump and Obama from disengaging from the Middle East entirely without consequences.

Iran’s enthusiastic support for Russia’s Ukraine invasion has dampened European support for reentering the Iran Deal.[xxiv] Sanctions, combined with the ongoing war in Europe, China’s growing global influence, and the Trump Administration’s previous withdrawal from negotiations, have caused Iran’s ruling elites to have a more challenging position toward the West. Like Vladimir Putin’s thinking, Iran’s mullahs believe China is a suitable replacement for any Western investment.[xxv] Iran sees its future as reliant on a more comprehensive economic integration with Eurasia to mitigate sanctions rather than moderation. Tehran also shares common ground with Saudi Arabia as Chinese-backed negotiations with its archrival allow it to reduce its security dilemmas.


The PRC-brokered deal demonstrates that Beijing’s renewed efforts at statecraft after its lackluster “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy have finally paid off. China’s transactional foreign policy and shared authoritarian values helped facilitate talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Demonstrating that China and Russia can present a viable alternative to American-led international liberalism. China’s version of state development offers a viable option for Middle Eastern countries compared to the liberal democratic alternative paddled by Washington.

The lesson for Western policymakers from the China-brokered deal is that these Gulf rivals, like many countries in the global south, do not view the current Washington-Beijing tensions through bipolar lenses. Like their Cold War predecessors, they generally do not consider themselves strictly aligned with any camp and will do business with both sides depending on the global climate. China can continue making diplomatic progress in the Middle East due to current trends like American political polarization and historical ones like mutual distrust of the West.


Featured image: the flags of Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. Coutrsey of E-International Relations.


[i] Report on Chinese Investors’ Confidence in the Middle East.” PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2022.

[ii] Dubey, Paul. “Oil and Gas Projects Led by Chinese Contractors in the Middle East Region Stand at US$75.3bn, Says GlobalData.” Informed Infrastructure, November 13, 2019.

[iii] China in the Middle East & Africa.” Botho Emerging Markets Group, June 2018.

[iv] Al-Tamimi, Naser. “Saudi Arabia’s Once Marginal Relationship with China Has Grown into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” Merics, August 18, 2022.

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation. “China-Iran Trade Report (December 2022) — Bourse & Bazaar Foundation.” Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, February 7, 2023.

[v] Bourse & Bazaar Foundation. “China-Iran Trade Report (December 2022) — Bourse & Bazaar Foundation.” Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, February 7, 2023.

[vi] DeNap, Katelyn. “China and the Developmental State Model.” China Business Review, May 12, 2017.

[vii] Wang Yi Talks about Six-Point Consensus on Guiyang Talks between Chinese and Serbian Foreign Ministers.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China, May 29, 2021.

[viii] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Remarks on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between China and Honduras.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China, March 26, 2023.

[ix] Vision 2030-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. (n.d.). National Transformation Program 2020.

[x] The Islamic Republic of Iran Overview.” World Bank, April 2021.

[xi] Khajehpour, Bijan. “As Iran Looks to Boost Production, Major Political Barriers Remain.” Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East, April 29, 2021.

[xii] Obeid, Ghinwa. “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Reveals NEOM’s First Luxury Island Sindalah.” Al Arabiya English, December 5, 2022.

[xiii] O’Malley, Ruth. “Saudi Arabia’s New $30bn RIA Airlines to Launch with Boeing 737s, Airbus A320s.” Arabian Business, September 12, 2022.

[xiv] Harvard Business Review. “How Saudi Arabia Is Fostering a Supportive Startup Ecosystem – SPONSOR CONTENT FROM MONSHAAT.” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2023.

[xv] Lawler, Dave. “The 53 Countries Supporting China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong.” Axios, July 3, 2020.

[xvi] Putz, Catherine. “2020 Edition: Which Countries Are for or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?” The Diplomat, October 9, 2020.

[xvii] BBC News. “China Buying Oil from Iran with Yuan.” BBC News, May 8, 2012.

[xviii] Said, Summer, and Stephen Kalin. “Saudi Arabia Considers Accepting Yuan Instead of Dollars for Chinese Oil Sales.” The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2022.

[xix] Kristian, Bonnie. “Trump Signs Largest Arms Deal in American History with Saudi Arabia.” The Week, May 20, 2017.

[xx] Azodi, Sina. “Why Is Iran Concerned about the Peace Agreement between the UAE and Israel?” Atlantic Council, August 20, 2020.

[xxi] Fact Sheet: Summit for Democracy: Progress in the Year of Action.” The White House, November 29, 2022.

[xxii] Parker, Ceri. “‘Defend the Liberal International Order’ – Top Quotes from Joe Biden’s Davos Swansong.” World Economic Forum, January 18, 2017.

[xxiii] Ryan, Missy. “U.S. Blocks $130 Million in Aid to Egypt over Human Rights.” The Washington Post, September 14, 2022.

[xxiv] Reuters. “France’s Macron Does Not See Room for Progress on Iran Nuclear Deal Right Now.” Reuters, November 14, 2022.

[xxv] Burja, Samo. “Will Western Sanctions Accelerate Russian Realignment?” City Journal, March 17, 2022.

About the author

Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown graduated with an MSc. from the LSE International History Department in 2018 and works in Washington, DC. He has previously written for Real Clear World, the Diplomat, and the National Interest. His Twitter handle: @KevinBrown778

Posted In: China | Contemporary | Iran | Middle East | Saudi Arabia | The United States

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