Is Saudi Arabia getting closer to China? - analysis

At the start of Friday’s talks, Prince Mohammed heralded a “historic new phase of relations with China."

 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)

WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia and China signed a series of agreements during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom, demonstrating deepening ties between the two countries that Riyadh’s traditional ally, the United States, is warily watching.

Saudi King Salman and Xi signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement. State news agency SPA said Saudi and Chinese firms signed 34 investment agreements in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, logistics, medical industries, housing and construction.

Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and economic giant China both sent strong messages during Xi’s visit on “non-interference” at a time when Riyadh’s relationship with Washington has been tested over human rights, energy policy and Russia.

China's influence in the Persian Gulf

China’s growing influence in the Gulf has unnerved the US. Deepening economic ties were touted during Xi’s visit, where he was greeted with pomp and ceremony and on Friday met with Gulf states and attended a wider summit with leaders of Arab League countries spanning the Gulf, Levant and Africa.

 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)

At the start of Friday’s talks, Prince Mohammed heralded a “historic new phase of relations with China,” a sharp contrast with the awkward US-Saudi meetings five months ago when President Joe Biden attended a smaller Arab summit in Riyadh.

Asked about his country’s relations with Washington in light of the warmth shown to Xi, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said Saudi Arabia would continue to work with all its partners. “We don’t see this as a zero-sum game,” he said.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said it is not surprising MBS and Xi would meet because Saudi Arabia is China’s key oil supplier and China is the Saudis’ best customer.

“But this meeting has a context: the poor relations between MBS and Biden,” he said. “So, this is not just a photo-op, nor even a trade meeting; it is one of several steps MBS has taken to show his independence of the United States and his deep resentment of how Biden treated him,” Abrams said.

“The US should quietly send messages to MBS and other top officials noting that Saudi security is still tied to the United States, not China,” he continued. “That is a fact that will continue when Biden is gone, so MBS should be careful not to damage the whole relationship in his anger at Biden.”

Asked how the tenuous relationship between the US and MBS affect the prospects of normalization, Abrams said, “all of this does mean that right now the United States cannot really advance Israel’s relations with Riyadh. Israel will need to do that on its own, and with help from other Arab nations.”

Politics abhors a vacuum

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said the meeting “represents another example that power politics abhors a vacuum, and so do middle powers concerned about American retreat.”

“Successive presidents have signaled their desire to pivot to the Indo-Pacific to take on a rising China, while China is pivoting into the Middle East to try and replace the United States,” Dubowitz said. “The result: Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the region are hedging their bets, looking to Beijing for superpower cover against threats from the regime in Iran, and for trade and investment to grow their economies.

“The Biden administration also made it more difficult to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel when it treated the crown prince as a pariah,” he continued. “While Riyadh and Jerusalem, nevertheless, are finding reasons to increase their military, intelligence, technology and commercial cooperation, those relations have their limits without American support.”

To establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, he said, “the crown prince wants a commitment from Washington to treat the kingdom as a close, NATO-like ally, military sales that are not threatened by left-wing congressional Democrats seeking to cut off military cooperation, American support to build a civilian nuclear program, and an American promise to defend the kingdom against threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

According to Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and a distinguished fellow in US Middle East Diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the MBS-Xi meeting “is highly symbolic coming hard on the heels of Biden’s visit to the kingdom.”

“It’s part of MBS’s effort to play the superpowers off against each other. And Xi is happy to cooperate with that,” he said. “However, Xi also inked a strategic accord with MBS’s nemesis in Iran and China’s imports of oil from Iran are propping up the Iranian economy. In other words, there’s a lot of hedging going on and MBS is surely aware that China is not a reliable partner.”

No alternative

He went on to say that ultimately, “Saudi Arabia has no alternative but the United States for its security because it’s sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, in a dangerous neighborhood, with no ability to defend itself.

“MBS knows that too,” Indyk noted. “That’s why he is seeking a formal security guarantee from the United States. But he’s going about it in a strange way. Biden is unlikely to welcome being played. He is more likely to reward loyalty rather than MBS’s flirting with America’s adversaries.”

He noted that the Biden administration has announced a “reevaluation” of the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“The president has refused to break off relations despite the provocation, but he has put MBS on probation,” said Indyk. “He has made it clear that he’s not in a punitive mood by providing sovereign immunity to MBS in a recent case before the US courts. If MBS responds by acting responsibly in the oil market, which he did last week by maintaining production despite the slide in oil prices, then Biden should continue the current course and be open to discussing a security guarantee. But if MBS sides with Putin again and cuts oil production, then Biden should tell him to forget about it, and wish him good luck with Xi and Putin.”

Grant Rumley, Goldberger Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said MBS wants Saudi Arabia to be a global power, not just a regional power, and in pursuit of that effort sees China as a key supporter.

“I think he also sees the added benefit of using his relationship with China as a leverage point with the US,” said Rumley.

“China is the largest trading partner for many Middle Eastern countries, has invested in critical infrastructure projects around the region, and is increasingly marketing its military platforms with varying levels of success,” he continued.

“I don’t think it’s feasible for us to expect these countries to simply diminish or downgrade their ties with China for our sake. I think a more judicious approach would be to do a better job of clearly communicating with our partners what our concerns are with certain aspects of their relationships with China and where some of their activities with China will inevitably jeopardize aspects of their relationship with the US.”

The real danger

John Hannah is the Randi & Charles Wax Senior Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. He said the real danger of the downturn in US-Saudi bilateral relations is that it could be incentivizing the Saudis to move beyond just trading with China into the strategic realm.

“If the US can no longer be counted on to protect the kingdom from Iranian attack or provide it with a reliable supply of advanced weapons to protect itself, then inevitably the Saudis will be forced to look for alternatives.

“Most dangerously that includes China, which exercises real economic and political leverage over Iran, and is prepared to sell Riyadh all the advanced weapons it needs and without any conditions attached regarding human rights.”

Reuters contributed to this report.