Saudi Arabia Looks to Replace Washington with Beijing

Whereas China and Russia do already have an agenda of a new, multipolar world order, they are far from the only players. While undoubtedly the most important ones, both are not only allied with each other, they are forming alliances with countries that were previously squarely placed in the US camp. Among the countries willing to turn their normal trade ties with China into a strategic alliance is Saudi Arabia, a country pushed to change its ties with the US not only because of the rupture between the Biden administration and Saudi’s crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), but also because it sees value in a multipolar world where it can project itself as a global player. If Saudi wishes to ‘change’ and become a regional and global powerhouse, it is possible only when it can exercise a high degree of strategic autonomy. Exercising that is nearly impossible as long as Riyadh is tied to Washington. Exercising that requires cutting the umbilical cord and coming into a position where it makes its strategic choices without toing the US line.

As irony would have it, the tool that Riyadh needed to cut the cord were provided by the US itself, as the Biden administration sought to make Saudi a “pariah” state and name MBS as the main culprit in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Ever since then, Riyadh has been taking steps that show, without much ambiguity, it is drifting away from Washington and forming new alliances, including with Washington’s most important strategic rivals, Russia and China. The Russia-Ukraine military conflict and the subsequent US failure to convince, or pressurize, Riyadh into increasing oil production show that the cord has already been cut. Now, by deepening its ties with China, Riyadh is demonstrating how it intends to further the agenda of a multipolar world in which the US does not have the capacity to ‘manage’ the world unilaterally.

This concerted Saudi push to change the world is evident from Xi’s upcoming visit to Saudia, which, even according to The Wall Street Journal, will “advance a vision of a multipolar world where the US no longer dominates the global order.”  There is, in other words, a creeping sense prevailing in Washington that reads Riyadh’s moves – especially, its decision to cut oil production without showing any meaningful regard for Washington – as part of its policies to hurt Washington’s interests and/or cut it down to size. Hence, Biden’s announcement of his intentions to ‘take action’ against the Saudis. But Saudi, as it stands, is undeterred by the threat, evident from its willingness to host Xi and offer the same kind of reception, according to the said report, that Riyad offered to Trump on his first ever visit to Saudi as the US president in 2017.

Nothing perhaps better illustrates this on-going, contentious transition away from the US and towards China than the expectation in the US that China is going to be treated in Riyadh on par with the US. In fact, given the state of US-Saudi ties, the treatment expected to be accorded to the Chinese fairly surpasses the reception given to Biden when he visited Riyadh recently and failed to convince MBS to break the OPEC+ agreement. Biden’s drastic failure and China’s success in winning over the Saudis for a future “oil alliance” shows a tectonic shift of a global powerhouse of oil away from its erstwhile ally.

As it stands, cooperation in the energy sector is at the center of China-Saudi alliance. When Saudi’s energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and the director of China’s National Energy Administration Zhang Jianhua met in the third week of October, all they discussed was “stable long-term supplies to crude oil markets”, with OPEC+ being the source of stability.

The fact that the emphasis is on supply of oil to the global market rather than just to China shows how both countries are expanding the horizon of their long-term strategic ties, especially in a context of global shift from a unilateral world order to a multipolar world order.

For China, stable supply of oil as well as stable oil prices are important not only for its own economy but also to the rest of world insofar as dramatic shifts in oil prices tend to destabilize the economy. This holds for China as much as for Saudi itself. This is exactly what Xi told MBS in his phone call early in the year. To quote Xi, China-Saudi ties have become all the more important in the wake of “the change in the international and regional situations.”

The question that many in the US seem to be considering is whether the US can reverse this process, especially China’s growing gains in Saudi? Some US analysts seem to believe that since the Saudis rely heavily on the US military equipment, Washington can pull the strings.

But this analysis is misplaced for many reasons. Most important of all is the assumption that Riyadh cannot just diversify its reliance on US military equipment. If Riyadh is deepening its ties with China and turning those into a ‘strategic alliance’, it can very well purchase defense equipment from Beijing as well. With Riyadh progressively cooperating with Moscow and willing to play its part in changing the unipolar world order, it can also purchase state-of-the-art military equipment from Russia as well. Plus, it is now well known that the US air-defense systems installed in Saudi failed to prevent incoming Houthi drone and missile attacks, prompting Riyadh to look for alternatives.

Even if Saudi does not automatically switch to China and Russia for military hardware, supplying military hardware to Saudi is perhaps the only thread connecting both countries. Were the US to cut it, it will only accelerate its own extrication from the Middle East. The Biden administration’s decision not to sell the F-35 jet to the UAE led the latter to make a deal with France for Rafael. The Saudis only have better options and would be willing to take those.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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