China – Saudi Arabia dynamics and the diminishing utility of the US in the region

For decades, Beijing's deft diplomacy in the Arab world has been productive. The perseverance of Chinese political leaders is beginning to pay off. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the US are at an all-time low.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

China and Saudi Arabia are getting closer to the stage where Chinese leaders are labelling it as the most significant diplomatic event that has taken place between China and the Arabian nations since the communist party takeover of China in 1949. Given the circumstances, the growth of Chinese influence in the region was perfectly predictable.

For decades, Beijing’s deft diplomacy in the Arab world has been productive. The perseverance of Chinese political leaders is beginning to pay off, particularly considering the diminishing influence of the United States relative to other world powers and the fact that China has long been the primary trading partner of nations in the Arab world. The United States military remains the most significant participant in this region’s military landscape. However, for how much longer?

The culmination of China’s previous manoeuvres came to a head during President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia (from December 7 to December 9). This visit takes place at a time when relations between the influential oil monarchy of the Gulf and its American partner are at an all-time low. 

What has China’s traditional approach been in this part of the world?

In this part of the world, China is following an accommodative and prudent policy. It has accomplished the difficult task of maintaining good relations with opposing groups, such as the Palestinians, Israelis, Iranians, and the opposing Gulf nations. However, its official policy hides preferences. It has a long history of commitment to the Iranian people, going as far back as 1985 when it first offered assistance to the Iranians for their nuclear programme. Since then, it has taken an official stance opposing the Iranian nuclear programme; nonetheless, it has continued to invest a significant amount of money in Iran.

Why is it best for Saudi Arabia to strengthen its ties with China?

The fact that the United States has almost entirely stopped buying Saudi oil and that China has become Riyadh’s primary customer should not surprise anyone in light of the recent rapprochement between the two countries. About seventeen per cent of China’s imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia’s top officials can already see the end of the age of cheap oil. Soon, Europe will no longer have such a significant demand for oil. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the Saudi economy transforms. China has pledged to assist Saudi Arabia in accomplishing its new goals by utilising its newly constructed silk roads, cutting-edge technologies, and low-cost labour. While China sells virtually “everything” to Saudi Arabia, Saudi exports are limited to petroleum products.

What does China hope to gain by cultivating deeper ties with Saudi Arabia?

The Saudis have a lot of money, but the amount of workforce that is required to carry out their new economic plans is greater than what is now available. Because of this reconciliation, there will be positive effects on the economy of China, which will lead to an overall improvement. As an illustration, Chinese businesses might be allowed to participate in creating the futuristic city NEOM.

In addition to this, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is largely acknowledged to be one of the most important centres of influence in the Arab world. There is no reason for the leaders of China to be anything other than ecstatic about the possibility of a reinforced presence there, particularly given that this presence serves to weaken the one held by the United States.

Does China employ a different strategy in this portion of the world than it did previously?

Over several decades, China has maintained the same strategy. She sees the entire world as one enormous game of go, in which she must strategically position her pieces to increase her dominance. The achievements of China can easily be seen in the realm of economics. However, the development it has made in its military indicates that within a few years, it will be able to replace the United States in protecting certain countries and ensuring the region’s stability.

Does this rapprochement weaken the United States?

The authorities of the United States feel that the Chinese are incapable of ensuring the region’s stability. They have just warned the countries in the area about the temptation posed by China. There is nobody that can’t be replaced.

But Xi Jinping’s first trip to Riyadh since 2016 cannot be reduced to “a message addressed to the United States.” Saudi Arabia now has the keyword “diversification”. “The country is changing. They are trying to change the structure of their economy and the design of their foreign policy.

China is the largest consumer of crude oil exported by Saudi Arabia and accounts for roughly a quarter of those exports. Saudi is the largest exporter of crude oil in the world. However, Beijing has stated that it intends to “maintain a generally balanced stance in the Middle East.” As a result, relations with the Saudis would be subject to “inherent restrictions.”

Despite the tensions that are currently occurring, China is “quite conscious of the depth of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the US.”


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