January 27, 2023

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With Washington in mind, Saudi is seeking closer ties with China

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week has highlighted how rapidly ties are intensifying despite warnings from the White House at a time of geopolitical realignment.

The agenda included talks with Saudi royals and summits with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and the broader Arab League, resulting in agreements on everything from infrastructure to space.

But the lack of public bilateral breakthroughs in sensitive portfolios like defense and telecoms will make it easier for Saudi Arabia to reconcile demands from Beijing and longtime security guarantor Washington — at least for now.

Weeks before Xi landed in Riyadh on what was only his third foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic began, a senior US official warned Gulf states of the risks of rapprochement with China.

“There are certain partnerships with China that would limit our options,” Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, said at a security conference in Bahrain in November.

The White House reiterated that warning Wednesday, saying China’s attempt to gain influence in the Middle East and beyond was “not conducive” to international order.

However, the same statement stressed that the US is not asking countries to choose between Washington and Beijing, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan made it clear on Friday that the Saudis have no plans to do so.

“We will continue to work with all our partners,” he said at a news conference following the conclusion of this week’s meetings.

This includes maintaining strong ties with the US “across the board,” he said.

– sign of caution –

China has long been a close energy partner with Saudi Arabia, consuming about a quarter of its crude oil exports last year.

As ties expand, Riyadh is moving “very cautiously” in areas Washington is more concerned about, particularly defense, telecommunications and nuclear power, said Naser al-Tamimi, an expert on Gulf-China relations at Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies .

This approach was visible this week.

Prince Faisal on Friday said deepening existing cooperation with China on arms manufacturing and sales is not a focus of the bilateral meetings, saying the focus is instead on “economy”.

Speaking at the China-GCC summit on Friday, Xi pledged to “jointly set up” a nuclear technology forum, while stressing that training opportunities for the Gulf countries would focus on their “peaceful uses.”

Xi also said China will make full use of a Shanghai-based platform to settle oil and gas transactions in Chinese yuan, a potential threat to the US dollar’s global dominance.

But when asked if Riyadh would participate in such a scheme, Prince Faisal said on Friday that “I don’t know anything about it”.

That caution aside, Saudi Arabia will “not stop working with China” because it believes the success of Vision 2030, a reform and economic diversification agenda championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, depends on it, Tamimi said.

– A “new phase”? –

Both Xi and Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, described this week’s talks as a milestone.

Prince Mohammed said Friday they would usher in “a new phase in the further development of relations between our countries.”

But in many ways the talks represented a continuation of Saudi foreign policy under Prince Mohammed, who was inaugurated to the throne in 2017 by his father King Salman.

His approach “is mainly driven by mutual interests and is no longer dependent on historical trends,” said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.

One difference now, however, is that Prince Mohammed has more strained relations with US President Joe Biden than with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

That became clear during Biden’s tense visit to Jeddah over the summer – when he clumsily rescinded a promise to make the Saudis “pariahs” – and a more recent row over OPEC+ bloc-approved oil production cuts.

“Although Saudi policy towards China was not much different during President Trump’s time, (Prince Mohammed’s) warm and personal relationship with the Trump family has moderated some Saudi actions,” Karim said.

Looking ahead, both Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors are likely to focus on their own needs rather than old loyalties, said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

“The key takeaway is that the Gulf States do not view relations with the US and China as a zero-sum game and advance their own interests in ways that are not necessarily aligned with Washington,” Ulrichsen said.