China and the Gulf: A big message for the US - analysis

This is particularly an issue in US-Saudi Arabia relations as some voices in the US have become increasingly critical of Riyadh, which has responded by conducting its own foreign policy.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. (photo credit: DAMIR SAGOLJ/ REUTERS)
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016.
(photo credit: DAMIR SAGOLJ/ REUTERS)

A major series of meetings led by China’s leader Xi Jinping in Saudi Arabia with leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council countries could have huge ramifications for the Gulf and are symbolic of larger shifts globally. America has wanted its partners in the region to remain distant from the large and powerful East Asian country challenging US hegemony.

This is particularly an issue in US-Saudi Arabia relations as some voices in the US have become increasingly critical of Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has responded by conducting its own independent foreign policy.

This is similar in some ways to Turkey, once a key US ally that now works with Russia and seeks to be both anti-Western part of NATO. 

Riyadh’s choices are in a larger spotlight these days. Prior to the US election, the Biden administration was frustrated about oil production cuts. The large visit by China is another big symbolic message to the US and the West in general.

Saudi Arabia has also been more open to Russia and, like many countries in Asia and the global South, the Gulf has not been as tough on Russia over the Ukraine invasion. That doesn’t mean that the Saudis have not been helpful – they were involved in helping get British detainees out of Russia after British citizens were captured by Russia while volunteering in Ukraine.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after his speech as China's new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 25, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE) Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after his speech as China's new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 25, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)

There is also a new dispute over whether Riyadh helped mediate the release of US Women's NBA basketball player Brittney Griner. The White House has said that Saudi Arabia did not mediate, according to Reuters, but The Wall Street Journal has reported that the UAE and Saudi leaders played a role.  

The story out of the Gulf this weekend is that China wants to work with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries on a number of issues, which could include security, energy and infrastructure.

“The agreement comes during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom, and amid frayed ties between the United States and both countries [China and Saudi Arabia] over oil production, human rights abuses and other issues,” CNN noted. "The nearly 4,000-word joint statement was published by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), and expressed agreement on a swathe of wide-ranging global issues, including energy, security, Iran’s nuclear program, the crisis in Yemen and Russia’s war on Ukraine." 

Could China cooperate with the Gulf countries?

According to various reports, China could cooperate with Gulf countries on nuclear energy and space; a deal with China’s mega multinational technology company Huawei was signed. This is a “new era,” one report said – and there are going to be so many potential partnerships that it seems impossible to count them all. 

Media in the Gulf was gushing over the visit. Al-Arabiya noted that “Arab countries seek to improve cooperation with China and look forward to a new phase of the partnership, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Friday at the China-Arab summit.” The report cited the crown prince saying at the summit that “the kingdom is working on enhancing cooperation [with China] to serve international stability.” 

Riyadh is indicating it doesn’t want to be pressured by Washington to choose between the US and China.

“Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Friday that the kingdom does not believe in polarization or choosing between one partner and another,” Al-Arabiya reported. The Gulf Cooperation Council has said it will remain a stable and reliable energy supplier to the world. This came during the Chinese visit, which also shows how the GCC would like to be seen by both the East and the West.

The National in the UAE said that “the GCC states and China have agreed on a four-year joint plan of action to enhance their strategic partnership, according to a statement released on Friday” that discussed the inaugural China-GCC summit.

“The participants agreed to strengthen cooperation on economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure flexibility on supply chains, food security and green energy as well as space and health,” the report said.

Ruffle feathers 

The China visit is sure to ruffle feathers in the US and provide more grist for the mill in terms of the critique pattern that underpins how some in Washington now see the Saudis. This is a kind of feedback loop or confirmation bias of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more voices in Washington have called to redefine ties with Saudi Arabia – or even portray it as an adversary – the more Riyadh pays attention and considers its other options, such as holding meetings with countries like China, which then serve as more “evidence” for why it isn’t the same historical partner that it has been for the US, leading to another flood of critique.

In the end, there are a number of issues that bring the US and Saudi Arabia together regarding certain interests, but there are issues that divide them as well. And it’s not just about Riyadh's  ties to Washington. The UAE and Qatar are both close partners of the US but they also have different agendas in the region. Qatar is hosting the World Cup and hopes to use that to showcase its importance; it is doing some influence peddling.  

The US has been close to the Saudis for many decades; they were key partners in the Cold War. However, after the Gulf War against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, US-Saudi ties became more complex. Osama Bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia and the threat of extremism grew. US bases became controversial. After 9/11, the Saudis also faced their own local threats at home.

In addition, countries like the UAE decided to confront the Muslim Brotherhood and this tied into UAE and Saudi Arabia being key allies of the Sisi government in Egypt.

Riyadh was also concerned about the US approach to the Iran deal. This has also been linked to the long-term trajectory that led to the Abraham Accords. There was also the Gulf crisis in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE broke relations with Qatar for several years. This has led to unprecedented shifts in Washington and discussions about the Gulf as well as the politicization of these ties and increased partisanship in the way some officials see the region.

As Washington shifts from the global war on terror to confronting its major adversaries China and Russia, any flirtation between US partners and Beijing is seen as very problematic. This is how the China-Saudi meetings will be seen in the West. 

The West is now working more closely on defense and security programs. Whether that relates to which countries get F-35s or advanced drones – or partnerships such as the UK, Italy and Japan developing a new fighter jet; or the US, UK and Australia in partnership on AUKUS – the Chinese work in the Gulf will be seen as problematic.

This will cement Western internal ties and its ties to countries like Japan and South Korea. It could also strengthen US ties with India and India’s ties to Israel and the UAE. However, New Delhi has also been reluctant to critique Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an issue that has bothered the US.

Now, Washington is seeing how countries are willing to move toward embracing China or talking to Russia – and historical US partners from Riyadh to Ankara are all making the same choices. This could have long-term effects for the Middle East as well as China’s initiatives, such as what it calls the “Belt and Road,” a massive infrastructure and regional connectivity project, as well as China’s new deals with Iran and its work in Africa.

China cannot compete with US technology and systems such as air defenses. The Gulf will hedge on these issues, and America will have to decide whether meetings with China are a redline, or whether this is just how the new world order will look.