Saudi Arabia’s China policy is made in the USA

Professor Bernard Haykel
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President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December will mark a further advance in the tightening relationship between China and the Kingdom. China has been slowly and carefully advancing its interests and influence in Arabia and the wider region by becoming a key economic partner of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has also sought opportunities to position itself as a strategic partner throughout the region by supplying weapons systems that America refuses to provide even to its Gulf allies, such as armed drones. By developing and deepening its economic and military relationships throughout the region, China eroded the US position as regional powerbroker to an extent that even a decade ago would have seemed remarkable.

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Under the guise of fighting piracy, Beijing established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, just across from Arabia. As a result, China is now a player in the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean. More recently, China was caught building a dual-purpose marine facility in Abu Dhabi which it abandoned only after vociferous US protests. In Saudi Arabia, China is involved in uranium mining and the production of ballistic missiles and military drones; it will no doubt also play an important role in the massive economic projects associated with Vision 2030, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MBS) plan to diversify the country’s economy away from oil. There are strong rumors that President Xi and MBS will soon announce that China will be building a major facility on the Red Sea.

How has this remarkable expansion of Chinese influence in Arabia come to pass? And why is Saudi Arabia, a longstanding US ally and partner in the wars on Communism and Islamist terror, increasingly looking to communist Beijing as a strategic partner?

On the one hand, the growing importance of the relationship with China for the Saudis (and other Gulf states) is inevitable. Beijing is the region’s most important trading partner, importing the bulk of Gulf oil production, along with other Asian and East Asian countries like India, South Korea, and Japan. Meanwhile, countries like Saudi Arabia import vast quantities of Chinese-manufactured products. Trading oil for electronics and other goods is simply a natural and mutually beneficial economic relationship between the two regions.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, like other GCC states, has historically been oriented toward the United States in terms of military security, cultural and educational influence, as well as financial flows and investments. Much of Saudi Arabia was built by American companies; Saudi hospitals are largely staffed by US-trained doctors; Aramco depends on American engineers; Saudi students continue to study in American schools. Ties between individual Saudis and Americans have created many decades-long friendships and deep reserves of personal warmth.

What is remarkable today, however, is the speed with which China is encroaching on these realms and displacing the US.

To explain this phenomenon, we need to look back at two decades of ever-increasing tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia. These tensions began soon after the 9/11 attacks when the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, a decision Riyadh correctly opposed because of the instability this would cause and the potential for Iranian domination of Iraq. Riyadh acquiesced, however, and helped the US invade, in part to assure the Americans that they did not in any way support the terrorists—including Saudi nationals—who attacked the US on 9/11.

President Barack Obama then presented a trifecta of policies that deeply threatened the Saudis. These were: No. 1, America’s policy of “Pivoting to Asia,” focusing on the challenge of China and in effect lessening America’s involvement in the region; No. 2, abandonment of long-standing, albeit authoritarian, allies like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and giving support to the Muslim Brotherhood in its bid for power across the region; and No. 3, the push for a nuclear accord with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was negotiated behind Riyadh’s back.

Next came President Donald Trump, who was regarded in Riyadh as being better than Obama, not least because of his antagonism toward Iran and Islamists. Yet Trump also let the Saudis down when he did not retaliate against Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.

In the last two years, the Saudis have had to contend with President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly insulted their leadership, taken a personal dislike to MBS, and has publicly sought to ostracize him. The ostensible reason for this hostility is Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. But Saudis see this as selective targeting, since Biden maintains a close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, whose record is equally problematic. While Biden’s visit to Jeddah in July was meant to overcome tensions, the president and the Democratic Party leaders have since ramped up antagonism for the Kingdom with threats of punitive action in October because of an OPEC+ decision to cut oil production. Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats have called for stopping arms sales and military training.

Saudi Arabia might have once been a US “client” state, a term redolent of imperialism, but it most certainly no longer sees itself this way. Today, it is a member of the G-20 group of nations and the de facto director of OPEC+, the so-called central bank of oil. The Saudis view their oil policy as a sovereign matter that aims at accomplishing two goals: stabilizing global energy markets and generating revenue for accomplishing the national goals of economic development and diversification. They do not pump oil to help one political party win elections in America, and certainly not at the price of their own developmental goals. With a thriving economy and one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, the Saudis are tired of being kicked around by American politicians who seem hardwired to pursue short-term electoral policies at the expense of long-term strategic partnerships.

It is no surprise, then, that the Saudis are diversifying strategically and militarily, and that China plays a key role in this effort—which is a clear expression of the Saudi national interest. What is harder to fathom is why, instead of trying to productively reengage with the Saudis, leaders in both American political parties appear to take pride pushing a valuable ally with a long history of productive ties into the arms of a global rival. Whatever the reasons behind America’s strange and increasingly self-destructive policies, you can bet that President Xi will be well received in the Kingdom—and that he will reap rich rewards for his visit.

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