Why Saudis Don't Want to Pivot to China – Foreign Policy

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Chinese President Xi Jinping just returned from three days of back-to-back summits in Riyadh: the first with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the second with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the third with a larger group of Arab governments. The result of the summit marathon was a number of public and not-so public agreements on energy, trade, investment, technology cooperation, and various other areas. The summits ratified an increasingly close economic and security relationship. Saudi Arabia supplies China with 18 percent of its energy needs, and it is expanding orders for petrochemical, industrial, and military equipment, much of which it previously obtained from the United States.
The White House, meanwhile, said Xi’s attempt to expand Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf region is “not conducive to maintaining international order.” Commentators described Xi’s visit as a sign that Riyadh is abandoning its traditional relationship with Washington and pivoting to Beijing.
Chinese policy is simple and straightforward. Beijing is offering Riyadh a deal: Sell us your oil and help us stabilize global energy markets; choose whatever military equipment you want from our catalogue; and benefit as you like from cooperation with us in defense, aerospace, the automotive industry, health, and technology. In other words, the Chinese are offering the Saudis a bargain that appears to be modeled on the U.S-Saudi deal that stabilized the Middle East for 70 years.
Chinese President Xi Jinping just returned from three days of back-to-back summits in Riyadh: the first with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the second with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the third with a larger group of Arab governments. The result of the summit marathon was a number of public and not-so public agreements on energy, trade, investment, technology cooperation, and various other areas. The summits ratified an increasingly close economic and security relationship. Saudi Arabia supplies China with 18 percent of its energy needs, and it is expanding orders for petrochemical, industrial, and military equipment, much of which it previously obtained from the United States.
The White House, meanwhile, said Xi’s attempt to expand Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf region is “not conducive to maintaining international order.” Commentators described Xi’s visit as a sign that Riyadh is abandoning its traditional relationship with Washington and pivoting to Beijing.
Chinese policy is simple and straightforward. Beijing is offering Riyadh a deal: Sell us your oil and help us stabilize global energy markets; choose whatever military equipment you want from our catalogue; and benefit as you like from cooperation with us in defense, aerospace, the automotive industry, health, and technology. In other words, the Chinese are offering the Saudis a bargain that appears to be modeled on the U.S-Saudi deal that stabilized the Middle East for 70 years.
The Chinese pitch resonates in a kingdom that feels betrayed by Washington’s turn to open hostility toward basic Saudi interests. It is no surprise, then, that many young Saudis naively tout the idea of replacing the United States with China. As graduates of U.S. universities and voracious consumers of U.S. pop culture and consumer technology, most educated Saudis feel close to the United States—close enough to feel bullied by what we see as unfair attacks by U.S. media and policymakers against us, our country, our leaders, and our culture. The alternative, for many, is to learn Mandarin and imagine future careers promoting Chinese industry and trade.
The world order created and long sustained by the United States can’t be destroyed by any global actor—except the United States itself.
For Saudis like me, nothing could be more disheartening than the prospect of a divorce from the United States. Since the 1960s, Saudis have never known a world without a strong relationship with the United States. I, too, am one of those young Saudis who hold deep admiration for America’s culture and greatness. The past decade, however, has shaken the faith of many Saudis, who feel their closeness to and admiration for the United States is not being reciprocated by U.S. politicians, policymakers, and journalists. The United States seems determined to make my country a “pariah,” as U.S. President Joe Biden promised during the 2020 election campaign.
This distrust goes back to the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama. When he negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, we as Saudis understood him to be repudiating a relationship that had become a source of stability and strength for both countries. The deal paved a path for Tehran to create a nuclear bomb while filling the war chest of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has armed militias across the Arab world in a voracious attempt to destroy the existing order. The pretense of balance put forward by Obama to justify a deal with an aggressive, revisionist power never made much rational sense. After all, if a friend promises to balance your needs with the needs of your worst enemy, it seems fair to conclude that he is no longer your friend.
During both the Obama and Biden administrations, Iranian aggression via its terrorist proxies in Yemen has been met with U.S. calls for de-escalation, frequently blaming Saudi Arabia for a conflict it did not seek. In Syria, the United States saddled us with the horrifying and threatening specter of a neighboring country controlled by Iranian troops and Russian bombers. As part of the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration sent tens of billions of dollars flowing into Iranian coffers—money that was used to demolish Iraq, crush Syria, create chaos in Lebanon, and support Houthi attacks against Saudi territory. It was the Obama administration that decided to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a strategic foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, which the administration sold to the American people as a way to supposedly de-escalate the civil war in Syria. In response to a barrage of missiles on Saudi infrastructure from Yemen last year, the Biden administration withdrew U.S. missile defense batteries from Saudi territory.
Yet even as Washington lit our backyard on fire, Saudis sought to honor the United States’ role in our defense as a regional peacemaker and as a country we continue to admire. That’s why it was so painful and alarming when the Biden team took office in 2021 promising to “recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” continuing a pledge he made in 2019 to “make [the Saudis] pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
In addition to its dismissal of a once-valued partner, the Biden administration has also chosen to wage war on carbon-based sources of energy with little realistic thought about how an energy transition should be managed. High-flown rhetoric about saving the planet has also been accompanied by a three-pronged effort to create a buyer’s cartel to combat OPEC+, the crown jewel of Saudi foreign policy and the linchpin of the country’s plans for domestic development. First, Biden has released millions of barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, whose purpose was to cushion a supply shock, not manipulate markets. Second, the United States, its European allies, Canada, and Australia created a market mechanism for a price cap on Russian oil exports last week. Third, the Biden administration has been pressing Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait to increase production to achieve U.S. domestic political goals, including inflation produced by its own fiscal and monetary policies. Taken together, the Biden administration’s strategy appears to Saudis and other observers as an attempt to wrest the power to set oil prices away from OPEC+. If the move is successful, then it would make it impossible for Saudi Arabia to have the revenues to achieve its own development goals.
Against this background, it should be abundantly clear why many Saudis are beginning to shift their gaze eastward. But I would counsel them that their hopes of China replacing the United States as a partner for Saudi Arabia are naive.
In addition to going to college and graduate school in the United States, I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. There, I was introduced to American pastimes like playing baseball, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, and watching A Christmas Carol come December. (My siblings and I preferred the Muppets version, of course.) These days, I use the Charles Dickens story as a metaphor to describe the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Imagine the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showing us our region without U.S. technology, innovation, defense cooperation, and security relations. Imagine a region where the benefits and limits of personal freedom are not subjects to be debated by the people and their rulers—as Saudis are increasingly doing as our country reforms—but things dictated by a centralized one-party state that sees God as its enemy.
Conflating U.S. miscalculation with U.S. incapability is foolish. The world order created and long sustained by the United States can’t be destroyed by any global actor, including China. It can only be destroyed by the United States itself. For good and for ill, our two countries’ fates remain inescapably intertwined—the ultimate lesson of Dickens’s story. Hopefully, a hard look at the future the United States is creating might help dispel the ghosts that are haunting the Middle East.
Mohammed Alyahya is a fellow at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East, and a former editor in chief of Al Arabiya English. Twitter: @7yhy
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