Biden’s problem is that he self-sabotaged his own efforts “to reorient – but not sever” US-Saudi relations with his 2016 election campaign rhetoric that accused the Saudis of “murdering children” in Yemen and promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Those comments, along with Biden’s decision to revive the Obama-era Iran denuclearization pact that former President Donald Trump killed, have ruffled Saudi feathers and alienated Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader. , Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It has also fueled doubts in Riyadh about the reliability of the United States, boosting China’s efforts to position itself as a rising superpower alternative.
“The United States has somewhat missed the call, called [Saudi Arabia] an outcast and multiple administrations have said there is a need to pivot to Asia, which implicitly means moving away from the Middle East,” Robert Jordan said., former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Diplomat-in-Residence at Southern Methodist University. “It makes it more attractive for them to look to their biggest customer as a country of considerable influence. China also has the added advantage of not lecturing the country on human rights.
Working to Beijing’s advantage is a close economic relationship with Riyadh lubricated by China’s reliance on Saudi oil. China and Saudi Arabia sealed a “strategic partnership” in 2016 tied to “long-term stable energy cooperation”. It pays off: bilateral trade was valued at $65.2 billion in 2020.
By comparison, bilateral US-Saudi trade – dominated by sales of Saudi oil and the Kingdom’s purchases of US-produced automobiles and aircraft – was just $19.7 billion in the same year.
Riyadh took relations with China a step further in March by announcing its intention to abandon US dollar transactions for some of these oil sales and convert them into Chinese currency, the renminbi.
Beijing has positioned itself as a non-judgmental partner to Riyadh and as a counterpoint to a US-Saudi diplomatic chill that reached new depths after the 2018 killing of Khashoggi.
Beijing urged Saudi Arabia in 2021 to become a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-initiated regional security and development grouping whose members include Kazakhstan, India , Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has positioned the organization as a defiant counterpoint to US-dominated multilateral groupings – with their pesky commitment to democracy and the rule of law – by urging SCO members to “refuse moralizing sermons from those who think they have a right to lecture us”. .” China is also seeking to link its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure development program with Saudi Arabia’s national infrastructure construction program.
“The Chinese have been working for access and influence not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the whole Gulf. … They study the situation in a given country, they see where there may be advantages for them or a access to them, and they move,” said David Satterfield, former principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Near Eastern Affairs and director of Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy.
China also plays a long-standing role as Saudi Arabia’s supplier of military hardware and technology of last resort by supplying Riyadh equipment that the United States refuses to sell over fears of sparking a race for regional armaments.
This relationship began with the sale of intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles in 1988 and culminated in December with revelations from US intelligence agencies that China had sold equipment and technology allowing Riyadh to manufacture its own ballistic missiles. . A month later, the Chinese Minister of Defense, Wei Fenghe, reaffirmed this cooperation by committing that China “maintain strategic communication with the Saudi army”.
But that doesn’t mean China can easily wean Saudi Arabia off decades of reliance on US-supplied weapons systems.
“The Chinese can provide missiles and missile technology that our Congress would probably still be too eager to provide, but the interoperability of American military platforms is so important in the relationship with Saudi Arabia that it would take five or six years to recalibrate and reorient to some sort of Chinese wave of new military assistance,” Jordan said.
Saudi Arabia currently deploys US weapons platforms that include Terminal High Air Area Defense anti-missile systems, M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and multi-mission surface combatants.
Despite Beijing’s diplomatic inroads, its relations with Saudi Arabia are hampered by China’s ties to Riyadh’s archenemy Iran. Beijing’s purchases of Iranian oil are providing the sanctions-choked regime in Tehran with an economic lifeline, and China and Iran have signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement designed to boost bilateral trade and cooperation. This relationship breeds distrust in Riyadh.
“We all need to take a deep breath when it comes to China-Saudi relations. Yes, they are getting stronger, going beyond just oil sales deals. Yes, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman surely appreciates not being questioned by the Chinese over Jamal Khashoggi, just as the Chinese appreciate not hearing criticism of MBS’s treatment of Uyghurs,” Jeffrey Feltman, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said. “But in the end, China doesn’t care about Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as its No. 1 existential threat,” said a statement. The United States is worried. Despite the complications, the United States will remain Saudi Arabia’s essential partner, even if this partnership is often uncomfortable for both parties.
Mindful of the decades of American blood and treasure squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has taken a staunchly neutral stance on the host of regional tensions in the Middle East.
“Over the past few decades, China has had very balanced relations with countries in the Middle East, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Israel, Iran or Turkey, and I just don’t see any deviation from that. to that,” said Dawn Murphy, associate professor of national security strategy at the National War College. “They don’t want to be seen as an outside power taking sides.”
China’s tiptoe regional approach is calculated to allow Beijing access to needed resources and markets without risking the potential backlash of an open challenge to traditional US dominance in the Middle East.
“China seeks to increase its own influence, undermine American influence, [and] to derive strategic gains from the region, but he’s deliberately trying to do all of this in a way that he doesn’t fight with the United States to try to stay under Washington’s radar,” said Michael Singh, former senior business director of the Middle East. on the National Security Council and managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Where China makes noise that appeals to Saudi leaders is in its aggressive rejection of foreign criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record.
“China doesn’t care what internal policies the Saudi government adopts towards the Saudi population, including minority groups or dissidents,” said Tong Zhao, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Politics. world in Beijing.
Minutes of bilateral meetings between senior officials invariably include a ritual denunciation of such criticism.
Saudi officials seem grateful to Beijing for turning a blind eye to Riyadh’s rights record – which includes what Human Rights Watch calls “routine repression” of dissidents, independent clerics and women’s rights activists as well as “systematic discrimination” against religious minorities – and regularly return the favor by reproducing the Chinese government’s responses to criticism of China’s rights record.
“[We] firmly support China’s legitimate stance on issues concerning core interests such as Xinjiang, resolutely oppose interference in China’s internal affairs, and firmly safeguard the rights of all countries to independently choose their own political path and human rights,” bin Salman told Xi in a phone call. in April.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia may succeed in removing some of the rancor from bilateral relations. But that is unlikely to alter Riyadh’s willingness to leverage its deep ties to China to pressure the United States into making its Saudi alliance an exception to the administration’s avowed foreign policy. Biden, guided by “American values, including a commitment to democracy, human rights and rule.” of the law.”
“Like during the Cold War…Saudi Arabia is trying to pit the great powers against each other.” Singh said. “If you’re worried about the US making too tough a deal, a great way to mitigate that is to flirt with Moscow and Beijing, tell every visiting US delegation how much more reliable the Russians are as allies, or how the Chinese offer you cooperation in this military field that the United States will not like.