“The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” is a 1966 American film narrating the Cold War tension with the story of a Soviet submarine that got stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New England. “The Chinese are coming”, however, is what a hotel receptionist told me to justify the lack of vacant rooms due to the arrival of many international delegations for the three summits taking place in the Kingdom.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his large delegation to Saudi Arabia is a major historical event that will have implications on many fronts in the years to come. However, some are likening this Saudi-Chinese rapprochement to the shift of former Egyptian President Jamal Abdel Nasser from the US to the Soviet Union. This comparison is far from accurate, as the zeitgeist is different and the emerging Saudi-Chinese ties have mainly economic motivations.
Saudi-US relations are attributed to their mutual interests. The US used to be a major oil importer and the protection of its zones and passageways was a top policy priority. However, since the discovery of shale oil, the US is no longer a major oil importer and can easily find alternatives to Saudi oil. In comparison, with more than 3 million barrels per day, China has become a major oil importer from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Politics follow economic interests. With its declining oil purchases from the Middle East, the US also waned its former commitments to the region and has shown more interest in other markets in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, China is expanding its commercial activities in the Middle East where it has a brighter future with its thriving economy, increasing need for energy sources, and growing hunger for new markets for its products.
Truly, commercial interests guide political directions, especially under the realistic vision that currently marks the Saudi Government. The same could be said of China, which regards Saudi Arabia as its key energy source for the forthcoming 25 years or so, despite the emergence of other alternative energy sources, particularly since the Kingdom will remain one of the few oil-producing countries that will continue to supply major markets in the long run. China also sees in the Kingdom a large market for its exports and an inevitable route for its trade.
A lot of ink will be spilled on Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh and on the three summits it will host for him. Some people will portray Saudi Arabia as betraying the US and shifting sides. However, we never perceived the Saudi-Chinese ties to be at the expense of Saudi-American ones.
On the one hand, the relationship between Riyadh and Beijing is not driven by politics, nor does it represent a military alliance. Instead, these ties are purely economic and rather comfortable as China is stable, predictable, and reliable. Moreover, Beijing does not overburden its partners with political demands or expectations, and it refrains from interfering in their internal affairs. Also, and at least for the time being, China wishes to carry out its commercial activities with Saudi Arabia and Iran without committing to the protection of specific markets or trade routes, which poses a large burden on the shoulders of regional countries.
On the other hand, the US has shaky relationships with the rest of the world, severe internal divisions regarding its foreign policy, and a powerful military presence inside the region. At any rate, the US still wants to preserve good ties with major regional markets, such as the Gulf ones, as well as its presence in the same regions that matter to China in the spirit of global competitiveness.
In conclusion, I rule out that Saudi Arabia is entering new alliances or getting involved in international conflicts. Rather, by adopting the Saudi 2030 Vision, the Kingdom wishes to remain open to all international markets and diverse partnerships.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.