As King Salman enters second year, Riyadh looks to China

The Chinese president’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the region can be seen as a response to rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran ...

Abdullah Hamidaddin

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The Chinese president’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the region can be seen as a response to rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Beijing has important relations with both countries, and cannot afford to lose either. A zero-sum confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran places China in a delicate position: It wants to keep equal closeness to both countries, in a situation that may demand preferential ties.

The worst-case scenario for Beijing would be a regional war that could deprive it of its energy needs. China also understands that what happens in the Middle East reverberates among its Muslim population. Moreover, very low oil prices will strain China’s economy, according to an analysis by The Economist.

However, there is much more to this visit. Saudi Arabia had been looking toward China for almost a decade. It foresaw the decline in U.S. interest in the region, and decided that it needed other strategic partners for its economic growth and security.

China is very keen on engaging Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world on many levels

Abdullah Hamidaddin

This interest in China has increased greatly since Saudi King Salman became monarch a year ago. The start of his reign coincided with increasing American disengagement from the Arabian Gulf, and his main priority was to fill the power vacuum that was increasing daily.

The best way to do so would have been for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran to sit together and agree on how to manage this vacuum in a way that leads to a balance of power between them, and hence stability. However, Tehran was bent on taking as much as it could and leveraging the nuclear deal, thus threatening regional stability and security.


With Washington on the sidelines and Iran’s aggressive regional posture, Gulf states need allies that can, and are willing to, play a regional balancing role. However, those allies should recognize mutual common values, not only shared material interests. The United States has always minimized the extent of the values it shares with Saudi Arabia, instead highlighting mutual interests.

We need allies that genuinely acknowledge and respect our values, and understand that progress needs time. They should need Saudi Arabia as much as Saudi Arabia needs them. However, we need allies that have good relations with Iran. Riyadh needs allies whose intervention is not military, but in the form of strong and effective diplomacy based on their global weight and Tehran’s need for them.

Such allies should not work closely with Iran on matters that undermine GCC interests, and should actively pursue an upgrade in strategic relations with Riyadh. That is where China comes in. It is more sympathetic to the region’s values, and understands the imperatives of development. There is a balanced mutual need between Riyadh and Beijing. China has strong ties with Iran, is needed by it, and thus can apply pressure to curb Iranian aggression.

Unlike Russia, Beijing is not in bed with Tehran over some of the most critical regional issues. China is also very keen on engaging Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world on many levels, as its first Arab policy paper clearly shows. For all these reasons, Beijing is the perfect Gulf ally at this time of U.S. disengagement.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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