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Saudi-Chinese Relations From an American Point of View

Saudi-Chinese relations from an American point of view \ Newslooks \ Opinion \. China’s growing clout in the Middle East is a major concern for the White House. President Joe Biden’s administration has been putting significant energy into trying to bring Saudi Arabia away from China’s orbit of influence. Biden’s controversial visit to Jeddah in July 2022, where he had his “fist bump” with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the recent beefing up of the US military presence in waters near the Arabian Peninsula, and efforts to bring the Kingdom into the Abraham Accords must be understood within this context.
Yet there is little reason to think that Washington can do much to pull Riyadh away from Beijing. The Saudis and Chinese believe that they very much need the other. Throughout the 21st century, the world’s center of geo-economic gravity has been shifting from North America and Europe to Asia. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ oil and gas flows have been moving East far more than West. Saudi Arabia sees itself integrating into Asia in terms of trade, commerce, energy deals, and investment.
The US has long realized that it has no means to change such dynamics, which are simply a reality in the 21st century with the rise of China as an economic powerhouse. However, the Biden administration believes that the US can make a difference when it comes to certain dimensions of Sino-Saudi relations which most unsettle the White House. These are the growing security, military, defense and technological ties between Riyadh and Beijing, as well as much talk about Saudi Arabia and China starting to trade in non-dollar currencies.

To maintain some overall perspective, the US remains Saudi Arabia’s security guarantor. Beijing is not on the verge of replacing Washington in this capacity. Few Saudis would say with a straight face that they will soon be able to count on China to defend the Kingdom’s territorial integrity and national security amid a regional crisis such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
However, despite economics mostly dominating the Sino-Saudi partnership over the years, bilateral relationships can start out being based on commercial activities and then, over time, expand to other domains such as defense. There are already signs of the Kingdom’s relationship with Beijing moving in this direction.  
In late 2021, CNN reported that the Chinese were helping Saudi Arabia develop its indigenous ballistic missile program. China has also sold Saudi Arabia certain drones which the US refused to provide the Kingdom. Most likely, the Kingdom is not about to begin hosting a Chinese military base on Saudi soil. But that is a possibility down the line, even if not for many years.

Team Biden is also unsettled by the prospects for Saudi Arabia and China doing oil trade in yuan, as opposed to the US dollar. Such a development would add much momentum to the de-dollarization movement. In light of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) conducting its first yuan-settled liquefied natural gas (LNG) deal with China earlier this year, Saudi Arabia possibly accepting yuan for oil sales is not unimaginable.

Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, is upgrading its presence in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. This worries Washington, which sees Huawei’s partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states as a cybersecurity risk. The Trump administration put pressure on the UAE to distance itself from the Chinese multinational technology corporation. Biden’s team will continue trying to convince the Saudis and others in the region to dump Huawei. Yet, it will be challenging for the White House to successfully do so considering how important this Chinese tech giant is to the Kingdom’s grander Vision 2030 goals.

The White House is putting vast amounts of energy into trying to bring Saudi Arabia to normalize with Israel. Of course, with the November 2024 election less than 15 months away, domestic politics are in play. The administration seeks a major foreign policy win in the interim and all the focus seems to be on bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords. Yet, pulling Riyadh away from Beijing is another important motivation behind efforts to bring about a normalization deal between the Kingdom and Tel Aviv.

Biden’s administration seems to believe that a Saudi-Israeli accord could curb Beijing’s influence over Riyadh. As part of a grand gambit, the Biden administration would presumably provide certain security guarantees to the Saudis, sell them more advanced weapons, and support the Kingdom having a nuclear program if Riyadh joins the Abraham Accords while also requiring the Saudis to never host a Chinese military base along with other China-related concessions on the Kingdom’s part.

In light of the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal signed in March, China’s rising profile in the Middle East is a growing concern for Biden’s administration and it will be one for the next US president. But it would behoove policymakers in Washington to understand that not every development which furthers Chinese interests in the Middle East necessarily threatens the US. Nor vice versa. China’s diplomatic work to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran into a new period of détente can help stabilize the region—something that the US should not instinctively oppose. Likewise, China was supportive of the UAE and Israel normalizing in 2020 and Beijing would probably have no objections to the Abraham Accords expanding.

One should not expect Saudi Arabia to move too far from China because of any deal that the Biden administration strikes with Riyadh, even if the US foreign policy establishment greatly desires that outcome. Decades of US foreign policy catastrophes in the Middle East have left Riyadh nervous about keeping all their eggs in the American basket. With MbS at the helm, Saudi Arabia continues diversifying its relationships in pursuit of the Kingdom’s quest to gain as much autonomy and leverage as possible on the international stage. This is the era of multipolarity and asking Saudi Arabia to “pick a side” between the West and the East will not be received well by the Saudis who, unlike officials in Washington, do not see US-China competition as a zero sum-game.
Moreover, the Biden administration’s hopes for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that could lead to the curbing of Beijing’s influence in the Gulf appear unrealistic. The demands that Riyadh are making—a security pact with the US, Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program—seem to be non-starters given political realities in the US and Israel. In sum, while maybe the Biden administration can be credited with being ambitious and thinking big, its plans for laying the ground for a new landscape in the Middle East that results in decreased Chinese influence are not viable.

More By Giorgio Cafiero

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

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