Ever since US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July this year, there has been speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping may soon visit Riyadh.
As the year draws to its culmination, Saudi and Chinese officials are holding a summit meeting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Xi on December 9. A developing relationship between the Saudi Arabia and People’s Republic of China in the backdrop of deteriorating US-Saudi relations has implications in terms of augmenting China’s position in the broader West Asian region.
West Asia is commonly referred to as ‘Middle East’ in the West.
The timing of this summit meeting coincides with the plummeting certitude in the future of the bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh. A series of geo-economic and political developments have led to this bilateral displacement.
Saudi rulers and the elite have always been very America centred, enjoying what diplomats call a “special relationship” with the US. Yet on a personal level Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known as MBS), and President Biden failed to form a connection, with the former even making fun of the 79-year-old’s gaffes, questioning his mental acuity and openly declaring his preference for former President Donald Trump.
This preference is easily understandable given Trump defence of MBS over the murder inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based critic of the Prince. Biden, on the other hand, campaigned on making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state signing off on the release of a CIA document that blamed MBS for the murder of Khashoggi.
The other reasons are geopolitical. The Biden administration’s repeated attempts to engage with Iran, has created a major rift between the two leaders, and is in no small measure a reason for Riyadh’s lean towards Beijing. When former President Trump called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA “the worst deal ever negotiated,” with his uncritical support for the government of Saudi Arabia, he succeeded in keeping America’s long term strategic allies assured that the status quo in West Asia would not be disturbed.
For Joe Biden, who was vice-president when the Obama administration successfully negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran preserving the JCPOA, is important for his foreign policy legacy. If the indirect negotiations with Tehran are successful and the JCPOA is revitalised, the Trump-era oil sanctions on Iran would be lifted. That arrangement makes the Arab states in the Persian Gulf uncomfortable.
While the sanctions relief would benefit the US most, allowing more oil to come onto the world market and lower gasoline prices for American consumers, the fear for Saudi Arabia is that Iran’s new access to money would be used to fund proxies around the region, further destabilising West Asia.
Anxieties that the US is trying to extricate itself from the region, have existed amongst Saudi political elites. Last year when the Pentagon decided to draw down air defence assets from West Asia, including Patriot missile batteries, the US Defense Department tried to reassure the Kingdom stating that US air and marine capabilities are still in place to support US interests and partners.
But for Riyadh an assurance of American commitment would have looked “like, for example, not withdrawing Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile attacks and drone attacks – not just from Yemen, but from Iran,” according to Prince Turki Al-Faisal the Kingdom’s former intelligence chief.
The US has begun working to transfer air defence systems from West Asia to Ukraine. While it has reassured its Gulf allies that these will be replaced over a period of time, for now this move implies that a major security cover for the region in terms of American presence has been decisively diverted to the European theatre.
Biden’s speech in Jeddah during his July trip was an acknowledgement that these anxieties do in fact exist amongst the Saudi elite. He said, “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill. And we’re getting results.”
But the fact is that on ground, there is a sense that the US is edging towards retreat from the region in the wake of the “normalisation” that the Abraham accords are ostensibly bringing about. Case in point is the pull back of US troops from the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, a flashpoint at the heart of West Asia war. But the Arab peace arrangements may well be short lived without American presence. The US had played a crucial role in maintaining the demilitarised status of the Gulf of Aqaba. Already there is opposition in Israel to allowing UAE oil tankers to enter the Eilat for transport of crude oil from the Gulf to Europe, as planned under the Abraham Accords.
Any flare-up in the Israel-Palestinian conflict might force other Gulf nations to reconsider the ‘normalisation’ arrangements.
Relations between Riyadh and Moscow are at a high point, with MBS choosing to deepen ties with Putin. The Kingdom’s role in ignoring US demands for increase in oil production, and in fact raising oil prices by cutting global supply by 1-2m barrels a day has alienated Washington. As high oil prices are seen as helping fund Putin’s war effort, in the US, there is loud clamour for “punishing” Saudi Arabia. delivering one of the strongest expressions of US anger, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez called for freezing all US cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
Even though the “strategic competition” with China currently dominates American foreign policy discussion, spurning its most significant strategic partner in West Asia, neglects the simple fact that an eager China would try to fill the ensuing power vacuum.
After its ignominious exit from Afghanistan, use of punishing economic sanctions against dozens of countries, concessional attitude towards human rights issues it exhorts, American credibility has been dealt a staggering blow. It is little wonder that Saudi Arabia doubts if the US will continue its commitments. It has refused Washington’s demands for increased oil production to Russia’s advantage, and is now willing to expand ties with China again regardless of the wishes of its Western allies.
Xi is scheduled to arrive in Riyadh on December 7.
Leaders from other West Asian and North African nations will be attending the Chinese-Arab summit, and dozens of agreements and memoranda of understanding covering energy, security and investments, are expected to be signed. Accounting for 27% of Saudi Arabia’s total crude oil exports, China is its largest trading partner. But Saudi-China trade remains narrowly based, consisting primarily of petroleum products and chemicals.
As the Kingdom implements its blueprint for economic transformation by way of Vision 2030, China is figuring as a key provider of technical support. From supply of fibre optic services, to collaboration in Space technology, development of tourism infrastructure and sales of weapons systems, China has not wasted any time in making significant inroads into West Asia. The Kingdom has sufficient uranium reserves to produce nuclear fuel domestically, and according to some reports Beijing has even assisted Riyadh in developing a nuclear enrichment facility.
The Chinese-Arab summit will explicate the extent to which their political-security arrangements might be expanded. Strategically Beijing would want to secure a hold over the largest of its energy sources, push for greater synergy between its Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030, and win more defence procurement deals. But beyond the bilateral strategic relationships, it will be interesting to watch how China navigates the region’s traditional rivalries.
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat for nearly a decade.