Shifting Alliances: China, Saudi Arabia and the United States

The Chinese President Xi Jinping has received an invitation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to visit Riyadh. Interestingly, the invitation comes amidst growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States. What implications would such developments have on the Middle East and what challenges lie ahead?

Trouble in Paradise: Saudi Arabia and the United States

Fundamental differences in political systems and ideologies have not formed a roadblock between Saudi Arabia and the United States since full fledged diplomatic relations were established in 1940.

A firm US ally, Riyadh remained a staunch supporter of Anti-Communism during the Cold War. The two signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951 which ensured US arms trade to Saudi Arabia as well as a US military training mission in Riyadh.

As part of a pro-US foreign policy, Riyadh firmly supported the Jiang Kaishek led Nationalist regime in Taiwan which made diplomatic relations with Communist mainland China non-existent.

However, the scope of  discord, which till now remained restricted to Saudi Arabia’s refusal to recognise the state of Israel, widened. In the wake of the Oil Crisis of 1973, Saudi Arabia and other oil exporting countries in the region put embargoes on oil trade with the United States and its allies for supporting Israel.

Soon another issue came up. During the 1980s owing to the growing threat of the nuclear proliferation programme of its Shiite rival Iran,  Riyadh engaged in a clandestine deal with China to establish a missile base on its territory. When the Reagan administration got to know of this development in 1988, it asked King Fahd to immediately close the base. King Fahd refused to comply and in turn, expelled the American ambassador. The missile base remains active till date, marking a major setback in the bilateral relations. However, through the 1980s and 1990s, relations were largely marked by cooperation.

It was at the turn of the century in 2000 that the bilateral relations hit a new low when Prince Abdullah assumed de facto leadership due to King Fahd’s health issues. Saudi Arabia blamed the Clinton administration for its “failure” to present a concrete resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue at Camp David. After the 9/11 attacks, many in the US criticised Saudi Arabia claiming the terrorists were allegedly trained on its turf. Riyadh also criticised certain aspects of President George Bush’s “War on Terror” and the subsequent 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Relations further worsened during the Democrat President Barack Obama’s administration. Obama made Riyadh his first stop on his first visit to the Middle East in 2009. The talks with King Abdullah fared poorly and Obama promised to give a serious thought to the Palestine issue. However, soon came the Arab Spring. As pro-democracy protests swept across the West Asian and North African region, the Saudi regime felt threatened. It urged Washington not to abandon allies and support the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt but to little avail. Riyadh was equally threatened about the democratic reforms in Bahrain. If both Sunni regimes fell to liberal democracy, Saudi Arabia would not be far away. More threatening was the possibility of the Royal House of Saud losing its monopoly over the country’s rich oil reserves. The Democrat regime in Washington however remained sympathetic to the pro-democracy protests. Riyadh was left with no choice but to meddle in the internal political affairs of both Egypt and Bahrain and nip the democratic aspirations in the bud.

Prince Mohammad bin Salman is more bold and aggressive than his father. He has not only snubbed Obama once but has also executed dozens of alleged terrorists, waged a war in Yemen and built a 34 nation Islamic anti-terrorism alliance against Iran. While the Trump presidency maintained cordial relations with Riyadh by avoiding calls within the US  for action against the Prince over his alleged involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Democrat President Joe Biden promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah state’.

With more than a year in office, contacts between the Biden administration and Prince Mohammad bin Salman remain limited. Recently, the Prince refused to heed to Biden’s demands of stamping in his reserves so as to control the rising crude oil prices which spiralled since the Russia-led invasion of Ukraine earlier this month, shuddering economies across the world.

Saudi’s response to the Ukraine crisis too remains complex. The Arab League, of which Riyadh is a part, failed to criticise Russia and help to Ukraine also remained limited. However, few days later, Saudi Arabia supported the sanctions against Russia and recently its foreign minister promised aid to Ukraine. While Riyadh’s actions have been favourable to the US which is uniting a coalition against Russia, the delay in getting to the decision strip bare the complexities that lie underneath.

A New Friend: Saudi Arabia and China

As noted, diplomatic relationship between Riyadh and Beijing remained non-existent and the two only came in contact during the 1980s regarding the missile base deal.

By the 2000s, China and Saudi Arabia came closer as trade in energy resources flourished. Riyadh became Beijing’s largest oil exporter. In 2006, King Abdullah visited Beijing in his first overseas visit after ascending the throne. The visit came at an important juncture as both entered a discordial phase with Washington and was hailed as opening a new chapter in the relationship between the two nations.

Another important event was Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s 2019 visit to China. Trade dominated talks and the Khashoggi issue was not raised.

Chinese investments are crucial for the Prince’s Vision 2030 under which he aims to create alternative sources of revenue for his country through infrastructural development, job creation and transportation to lessen the dependence on oil.

Moreover, the pandemic gave a sharp blow to the Saudi economy, particularly the purse of the Royal House as oil prices reached an all time low. Chinese medical aid proved crucial for Riyadh. Emerging from a badly hit economy and disenchanted with Biden’s policy of maintaining distance, Prince Mohammad bin Salman-led Saudi Arabia sees a new friend in China. The recent reports of China aiding Riyadh in building its own ballistic missiles not only point to the growing proximity between the two but also possess the ability to drastically change the security situation in the region.

Furthermore, Riyadhi’s disenchantment with Washington helps Beijing in gaining an upper edge, not just in terms of lucrative investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia and highly favourable oil deals but also in leaving its imprint in the Middle East.

What it means for the Middle East?

If China and Saudi Arabia continue to forge a close relationship, it is bound to bring the United States in a direct competition with Beijing for allies in the Middle East where the United States still retains a considerable stronghold vis à vis Beijing.

If the development of ballistic missiles report turns out to be true, it might unleash an arms race between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran which might also escalate into a war or like the Ukraine crisis, into a unilateral invasion. The Middle East might become a flashpoint of conflict between Washington and Beijing as the other states might be forced to choose sides. Moreover, such a conflict or even rising tensions if unleashed, are bound to create unimaginable consequences not just in terms of humanitarian crisis, phenomenally high oil prices which will kick start recession in various economies across the globe but also in terms of the use of nuclear weapons considering Iran’s nuclear development programme which shows no signs of abating. 

Challenges

However, shifting alliances would not come so easily as several challenges await. 

The Washington factor

Though going through phases of disenchantment from time to time, Saudi Arabia and the United States share broadly the same security concerns, specifically with regard to Iran and its nuclear programme. 

While Riyadh purchases drones from China which it uses in Yemen, it relies on its Western allies for more expensive conventional weapons. The United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner and Saudi Arabia is Washington’s largest export market in the region. It is not possible for one to easily isolate the other. What Saudi Arabia demands from the United States is recognition for Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The Tehran factor 

China’s growing  proximity to Iran, which recently took the form of a multi billion dollar 25 year Strategic Cooperation Deal, is another important factor.

While friendship with an anti-American bastion in the region in the form of oil rich Iran seems like a win-win situation for Beijing, Tehran’s growing aggression towards both the US and Saudi Arabia threaten to create problems for China.

Scholars believe that the relationship between China and Iran can be categorised  as a ‘Great Power- Middle Power relationship‘ where the Middle power (here, Iran), owing to the diplomatic, economic and military asymmetry in the relationship fears abandonment  and demands the Greater power to come to its aid, even complaining when it does not. 

Such an attitude was displayed in Tehran’s complaint that China avoided Iranian ports and ships for trade to enforce US imposed sanctions on it. As proximities with Saudi Arabia grow, Tehran is bound to get more paranoid, demanding greater concessions for itself. Iran, in this way, would only push the US and Saudi Arabia together and keep Riyadh away from Beijing. 

The Way ahead

The only desirable way ahead for the United States, Saudi Arabia, China as well as Iran is to communicate their concerns and diplomatically resolve the issues. Collaboration through joint economic projects and investments as well as on the environment  might form a bridge to lead to better political relations.

[Photo by U.S. Department of State, Public domain]

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India and is currently an intern at Modern Diplomacy. 

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