China, Saudi Deepen Links As US Distances From MBS

  • The US is distancing itself from Saudi Arabia and reassessing its options in the Middle East.
  • Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed is attending the Beijing Winter Olympics in a show of unity with China.
  • The two countries have deepened their trade and defense links in recent months. Experts say the US may not like it.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is arriving in Beijing on Friday to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics as Western leaders boycott the event over human rights.

The news of MBS’ attendance, reported by Chinese state media, comes as no surprise. In recent months, China and Saudi Arabia have grown closer, establishing new fronts of cooperation in defense and trade.

Meanwhile, the US, the longtime military heavyweight in the Middle East, is continuing to reassess its options in the region, after distancing itself from MBS and historic costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sino-Saudi relationship reaches new heights

Saudi Arabia has long been China’s biggest trade partner in the Middle East — Saudi goods accounted for 17% of Chinese imports in 2021.

China has also played a small role in Saudi Arabia’s defense since the 1980s, but the US has always been the Saudis’ main military guarantor.

That low-level military trade has never fazed the US, said Jonathan Fulton, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council: “There’s always been a bit of that, mostly military things that the US can’t provide, so it doesn’t really step on any toes.”

But Riyadh and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, identifying security as a key area of shared interest.

In 2020, China promoted its Saudi relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and on January 27, that relationship hit new heights when the pair announced plans to deepen their defense collaboration to a “practical cooperation” level.

“It was very vague but given the context of the ballistic-missile project that the Chinese are supporting them in, you can see that the relationship is moving further,” Fulton said, referencing a December CNN report that revealed how China was helping Saudi Arabia develop its own ballistic missile program.

“They need China on their side,” Roie Yellinek, nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said of the Saudis. “Military ties are the best way to do it.”

biden xi jinping

Xi and then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2011.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Sino-Saudi defense partnership is smart business, but it may not have gone down well with the US. 

“When proliferation is such a big issue, for the US’ biggest strategic competitor [China] to be helping one of their most important allies [Saudi Arabia] is probably not very well received in Washington,” Fulton said.

While the US is still Saudi Arabia’s largest foreign military partner, Washington did politically distance itself from MBS in 2018 following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

“The Americans are still trying to understand what they’re supposed to do with the Saudis,” Yellinek said.

During the defense announcement, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe fired a thinly-veiled jibe at the US, saying China and Saudi Arabia should “jointly oppose hegemonic and bullying practices.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has insisted, however, that Beijing was not trying to challenge US hegemony in the Middle East. “There is no ‘power vacuum,’ and there is no need of ‘patriarchy from outside,'” he said on January 16.

Instead, Beijing is working differently, Yellinek said: “China has no interest in replacing the US, they don’t have the capacity to do it and it’s not their style of doing things.”

MBS and King salman side by side composite

A composite image of Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.

Royal Court of Saudi Arabia via Getty Images

Inching closer

The Sino-Saudi relationship goes deeper than just defense.

Beijing has Riyadh’s support on the key issue behind the boycott of its Winter Olympics: The persecution of the Uyghurs, the Muslim-dominant ethnic group whose existence is being threatened in western China. Saudi Arabia is reportedly helping deport Uyghurs to China, and MBS has defended the use of the camps in which China is keeping them.

China has also pledged to help with Vision 2030, MBS’ mammoth development project to reform Saudi Arabia, and asked that Saudi Arabia help with its Belt and Road Initiative in return.

Last November, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund applied for a license to trade on China’s stock exchange, another step in deepening the two countries’ financial links.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced Mandarin would be taught in some schools as a third language alongside English and Arabic.

“Years ago every conversation started with, ‘why is China important?'” Yellinek said. “Now, no one asks this question.”

While the US is by no means abandoning Middle East, Riyadh’s move toward China — a shift also mirrored by Saudi Arabia’s neighbors — indicates that all roads don’t have to lead to Washington. Some can end in Beijing.

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