China and Saudi Arabia: Closer ties?

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The Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s recent visit to Beijing closed with the leaders of both countries signing 15 agreements and memorandums of understanding on issues such as energy development, oil storage, housing development and water resources. China is eager to boost its status in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia on the other hand seems to be looking to secure its position in an increasingly multipolar world, particularly now when the US is being viewed as less of a reliable security partner. After Salman’s visit concluded, several observers commented on China’s eagerness to forward bilateral ties, considering the Chinese President Xi Jinping himself decided to take the trip to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse to meet Prince Salman.

Primarily, the Saudi-China partnership is one based on the demand for energy. While China is the world’s largest oil importer, Saudi Arabia happens to be the world’s largest oil exporter—making the two when in bilateral trade the largest customer and provider of oil respectively. Both countries are interested in new ways of deepening the relationship under China’s OBOR initiative and Prince Salman’s “Vision 2030” program.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin was the first Chinese head of state to visit Saudi Arabia. This means the China-Saudi partnership is fairly new compared to Saudi Arabia’s partnership with the US. In fact, energy needs brought the two countries together right from the beginning of the partnership, where President Zemin’s 1999 visit was made for the purpose of signing a Strategic Oil Cooperation agreement. Since then the two countries have expanded relations in other areas as well, with energy still figuring as the top priority, considering Saudi Arabia meets around 20 % of the Chinese demand.

While historically Saudi Arabia has been fairly confident of its relations with the US, up until recently the Saudis along with other prominent members of the international community have begun voicing their concerns regarding the Trump administration’s eccentricities and instability. As noted in a recent article in The Diplomat, the condition for Saudi Arabia exacerbated following: the US lifting of sanctions on Iran, former President Obama’s reversal on his decision to enforce the “red line” of chemical weapons use on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the refusal of support by the US to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.

In the China and Saudi Arabia relationship however, owing to China’s OBOR strategic interests and its growing engagement in the Middle East, security cooperation can potentially become an important aspect of the relationship. Notably from 2008 to 2011, Chinese arms sales to Saudi Arabia were worth about $700 million.

However, like most bilateral relationships the China-Saudi Arabia relationship too is likely to run into its fair share of complications.

Firstly, while China values ties with Saudi Arabia it is also interested in enhancing relations with Iran, which happens to be Saudi Arabia’s rival. Animosity between the two will forever shadow the China-Saudi Arabia relationship.

Saudi Arabia on the other hand is interested in enhancing ties with Japan, which for China is a regional competitor. Saudi Arabia’s decided strategy in dealing with both Japan and China can be predicted by observing just how Prince Salman arranged for meetings in both countries simultaneously. The fact that Saudi Arabia seems to want to manage relations with both countries at the same time hints at the possibility of severe instability in the future of the Saudi-China partnership.

Moreover, while the ‘idea’ of China being able to replace the US seems like a promising possibility, in reality this will be much harder to do. Though Chinese arms sales to Saudi Arabia may have increased overtime, the increase is still no match for the $33 billion worth of sales the US alone made to Saudi Arabia back in 2011.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service revealed, “Saudi Arabia’s decision to update and expand its air force with American F-15 fighter jets would perpetuate Saudi reliance on parts and training provided by the United States military and defense contractors”. America is further involved in training the Saudi army and modernizing the National Guard. American advisers paid for by the Saudi government are also “embedded in industrial, energy, maritime and cyber security offices within the Saudi government”.

It seems in the immediate future at least Saudi Arabia is not likely to at least completely cut military and political ties with the US. Perhaps with China the relationship will most likely remain, as is now: based on economics.


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