RIYADH, March 16 (AFP) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping approached Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler last year about Beijing serving as a "bridge" between the kingdom and Iran, jump-starting talks that yielded last week's surprise rapprochement, a Saudi official said Wednesday (Mar 15).

The initial conversation between Xi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took place during bilateral talks at a summit in Riyadh in December, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe how the deal -- whose ripple effects could spread across the Middle East - took shape.

"The Chinese president expressed his desire for China to be a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince welcomed this," the official said, later adding that Riyadh sees Beijing as being in a "unique" position to wield unmatched "leverage" in the Gulf.

"For Iran in particular, China is either No 1 or No 2 in terms of its international partners. And so the leverage is important in that regard, and you cannot have an alternative that is equal in importance," the official said.

Several other meetings also laid the groundwork for last week's talks in Beijing, according to the official.

They included a brief exchange between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers during a regional summit in Jordan in late December, talks between the Saudi foreign minister and Iran's deputy president during the inauguration of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in January, and a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February.