Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a long-rumored trip to Saudi Arabia last week, enhancing ties between his country, the world’s top oil importer, and the leading oil exporting country. Xi and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) inked a number of deals on oil, technology, infrastructure and security, and also made an agreement to avoid interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Xi also met with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a broader group of Arab leaders. The China-Saudi summit comes amid frosty U.S.-Saudi ties and a perception among Arab leaders that Washington is pulling back from its traditional role in the Middle East, leading to some speculation of a larger geopolitical shift in the region amid the intensifying U.S-China rivalry.
USIP’s Joel Starr and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at what the Saudi-China relationship means for U.S. influence in the Gulf and what Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are looking to get from greater cooperation with Beijing.
What does the growing Saudi-China relationship mean for U.S. influence and interests in the Gulf region?
Starr: It means a fiercely competitive strategic rivalry with China is growing in the Gulf. But as former Defense Department official Grant Rumley explained this week at a USIP sponsored briefing to congressional staff: “It is unrealistic for the U.S. to expect countries in the Middle East to choose between a relationship with the U.S. and a relationship with China, given the complexities of their modern economies.” Rumley believes, however, that the United States must convey the “risks of deeper relationships with China and the risks those might have on a relationship with the U.S.”
USIP’s Daniel Markey, the author of a 2020 book on China’s evolving relations with its western neighbors who also participated in the briefing, noted that U.S. cooperation with China via regional economic integration in underdeveloped parts of the Gulf “is not necessarily a bad thing.” “These certain Chinese aims, like hard infrastructure (roads, train lines, ports), are not in themselves a problem, but actually things that the U.S. and others like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have championed in the past.”
But, the United States has issues with China’s initiatives in the region in two ways. “First, how China does these projects is often different from how we would do them (i.e., labor, environmental, and other standards, financing concerns, plus of course Chinese companies get priority),” Markey said. “Second, sometimes they do have a potential strategic risk, like how some ports could be dual use, or roads/rails that run east-west across Eurasia and into China have potential implications for military power projection over time.” Markey also noted that China’s digital infrastructure initiatives can be particularly problematic, creating problems related to security, human rights and privacy and thus, “should be perceived very differently from hard infrastructure projects.”
Rumley concluded his remarks by saying that often Gulf countries’ “security relationships point toward the U.S., but their economic relationships point toward China. Navigating the middle of that Venn diagram is difficult, but the U.S. must explain to them again where the risks are in deepening economic and perhaps security ties with China and what that means for the future of the relationship with the U.S.”
I agree with both Rumley’s and Markey’s assessments and note that all the subjects they touched upon — security, the Belt and Road Initiative and digital, environmental, energy and economic integration — were addressed in either the joint Saudi-Chinese statement or reported on during the three-day summit. The next five years will determine whether the Middle East will be just one theater of U.S.-China competition, which it currently is, or whether it will be the theater of strategic rivalry.
The United States has long been Saudi Arabia’s key security and intelligence partner. Does Riyadh’s enhanced partnership with Beijing change anything about Washington’s role in the region?
Starr: In the immediate term, no; in the long term, quite possibly yes. The United States has been the security guarantor to Saudi Arabia for decades. It is the largest supplier of arms to the Kingdom, and is the largest exporter of arms generally to Middle East, capturing 53% of regional sales. Though China has increased its arms exports to Saudi Arabia in recent years, it is noteworthy that no arms deal was announced — at least publicly — during the summit. There were “[l]ots of Chinese Flags and traffic last week in Riyadh but no defense deals,” said Joseph Rank, the chief executive and vice president at Lockheed Martin Saudi Arabia and Africa.
But the poor performance of Russia’s military equipment on Ukrainian battlefields may have weakened its appeal as a security partner in the Middle East, opening a competitive arms sales vacuum that China will no doubt seek to fill in the long term. The Biden administration is aware of this vacuum and despite commentary about a U.S. pullback or retrenchment of its role in the Middle East, U.S. officials are on the record as committed to ensuring “that any global military capability gap is not filled by the People’s Republic of China.”
And the administration may have an ally in this commitment in the 118th Congress. The establishment of a House Select Committee on China by Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (the likely incoming speaker of the House) will create an opportunity to focus on the growing economic and security U.S.-China strategic rivalry in the Middle East. Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WIS) would chair the committee. He is seen as bringing expertise and a bipartisan approach in seeking ways to out-compete China and address the increasing national security threat it poses, while also seeking areas of cooperation like counter-proliferation and fighting piracy in the Gulf.
Amid ongoing tensions with Washington, what is Saudi Arabia looking for from China?
Hamasaeed: In short, Saudi Arabia is diversifying and hedging as its leaders pursue a growing relationship with China due to domestic, regional and global changes. The Chinese are also reciprocating for similar reasons. As an oil-rich country, the Saudis are looking to diversify their economy and economic partnerships. This is occurring because the Saudis see value in such diversification, but also in light of actual or perceived recalibration — mostly perceived as retrenching — of the U.S. presence and engagement in the Middle East, as well as global dynamics trending toward a multipolar world.
These dynamics predate recent tensions in the Saudi-U.S. relations. During my visits to the Middle East this year, regional interlocutors informed me that the UAE is furthest along in its adjustment to this changing world while the Saudis are in earlier stages.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July helped calm tensions, as he met with regional leaders and provided assurances of continued U.S. commitments to the region. The president said Washington would not allow any country to dominate the region, including, Russia, China or Iran. But, by that point, the ship on welcoming Xi to Saudi Arabia had sailed.
The Saudis are signaling to the United States that they have options and are serious about pursuing those options if they cannot get what they need from the United States. Still, the Saudis do not seek to replace the United States as a primary partner and security guarantor nor substitute economic engagement with the United States. However, to a certain degree, trust has been broken and there needs to be more work to restore and calibrate to a new order.
Hosting three summits with Xi and two with Biden contributes to the image that Saudi Arabia and MBS are aiming to promote of the Kingdom as a leader, convener and modernizer. MBS concluded his remarks at the Xi-Arab leaders’ summit by saying “Arabs will race to renaissance and progress again and we will prove that every day.” China can offer know-how, technology, investment and other forms of support, given its role in the U.N. Security Council, relations with Iran and economic might.
Xi also met with a number of other Arab leaders. What do they get from closer cooperation with Beijing and what does China want from them?
Hamasaeed: The needs and specific objectives of each country may vary, but at the big picture level, like the Saudis, other GCC countries and the broader Middle East seek to diversify and hedge for economic, political and, to some extent, security reasons.
China’s primary interest in the Middle East is economic, although longer-term security and hegemonic interests cannot ruled out. The region remains a primary source of energy and a lucrative market with a sizable population and number of countries important to China as it tries to restore a great past and build its global influence. Arab leaders expressed appreciation for China’s support for Palestinians’ aspiration and parameters for statehood and reciprocated by endorsing the “one-China” policy with respect to Taiwan and with their silence on China's treatment of the Uyghurs.
Respecting each other’s culture, long shared history, non-interference in internal affairs and focusing on mutual benefits featured repeatedly in the leaders’ remarks. While they did not mention the United States by name, for many these words were code for contrasting with the U.S. emphasis on democracy, human rights and support to civil society in the region. Middle East governments often bristle at this and consider it interference in their affairs. In addition to economic benefits — like the Belt and Road Initiative — some of these countries hope a closer relationship with China, a multipolar world and great power competition will reduce U.S. pressure on them to improve their record on human rights and inclusive governance and keep the emphasis on other interests, like security.
China needs the GCC’s energy resources, while the United States has become less dependent on Gulf oil in recent years. China offers Arab states cooperation initiatives in development support, food security, public health, green innovation, energy security, inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development, and security and stability. The United States offers similar and even better advantages, but toxic politics, conspiracy theories in the region, and seemingly inconsistent U.S. actions — like intervening to remove Saddam but appearing as not caring enough, or weak, in the face of Iran and its proxies destabilizing activities — dominate regional perceptions of U.S. policy.
It is unclear if strengthened relations between China and the Arab states and Iran will result in helping the latter two “find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” The same question faces China and the United States, and there are different views as to whether both countries should compete or cooperate as the region seeks to address its problems. Regional leaders know that Washington is indispensable and think the United States — their preferred partner — is purposely downgrading its role. Fractures in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen certainly offer China, Russia, Iran and Turkey the space to advance their leverage, which the “people” of the region do not view favorably. China may bring an advantage of benefits without the kind of expectations — for example, on better human rights — that come with U.S. assistance and partnership, but the United States will always have an advantage through diplomacy, civil society, development and security, should it choose to leverage it. In the Middle East, it is the United States leaving the space, not China or Russia winning it.