In a remarkably prescient 2004 interview, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal told former Washington Post journalist David Ottaway that the U.S.-Saudi relationship wasn’t a “Catholic marriage,” where only one wife was allowed; it was a “Muslim marriage,” where four wives were permitted. “Saudi Arabia was not seeking divorce from the United States; it was just seeking marriage with other countries,” Ottaway wrote.
That has now come to pass. Nowhere is this more clearly reflected than in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week—the first since 2016. Xi’s visit won’t be an awkward “let’s mend the fences” fist-bump moment. It’ll be much closer to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2017 extravaganza: a full-on fete of pageantry and warm embraces as Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner meets China’s largest source of imported oil.
Beijing cannot replace Washington on the issue that matters most to the Saudis: their security in a rough neighborhood. But the days of Riyadh’s monogamous marriage with Washington are probably going the way of the dodo. In today’s Cold War 2.0—or whatever we want to call the rising tensions and competition between the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other—not only will Saudi Arabia refuse to choose sides, but it’s also likely to move closer to Beijing and Moscow as its own interests warrant. In short, Washington is no longer the only wife in town.
It’s tempting to see the Saudi interest in improving relations with China as a temporary tactic to remind the United States to pay more attention to Saudi interests and not take Riyadh for granted. Personal relations between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden have been anything but cordial; the crown prince has said he doesn’t care what Biden thinks of him, and Biden—no wilting wallflower when it comes to calling out the Saudis—has made it clear that he doesn’t think much of the Saudi leader.
But what ails the U.S.-Saudi relationship goes much deeper than bad chemistry between the president and crown prince. The fundamental trade-off that sustained the relationship for decades—Washington needs Saudi oil and Riyadh needs U.S. security guarantees—has frayed over the years thanks to a long list of stresses and strains. These include the 9/11 terror attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and lingering questions over how much the Saudi government knew about the plot; the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad vulnerable to Iranian influence; the U.S. reaction to the Arab Spring, in which Washington pressured Egypt’s president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, to step down and encouraged democratic reforms elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa—moves the Saudi monarchy viewed as a threat to authoritarians everywhere and as a potential threat to its own hold on power; the fracking and shale revolution that made the United States an oil competitor; the Obama administration’s nuclear accord with Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, Iran; Riyadh’s growing concerns—highlighted by Washington’s perceived weak response to the September 2019 Iranian drone/cruise missile attacks on two key Saudi oil-producing facilities—about the U.S. commitment to Saudi security; and, finally, the rise of the ruthless and reckless Mohammed bin Salman and his ordering of the killing of Saudi dissident and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
Efforts to mend ties only seem to make them worse. Despite the bro-like fist bump between Biden and the crown prince during the president’s visit, one came away with the feeling that the Saudis had the upper hand, got quite a bit more than they gave, and had no intention of lining up with the Biden administration against Russia in Ukraine or against a rising China. One would be hard-pressed to find any language critical of either of Washington’s adversaries in the expansive statements or communiques that came out of that meeting. And whatever understandings the two sides had reached on Saudi intentions to increase oil production collapsed in a moment of acrimony when, at the OPEC+ meeting in October, the Saudis and Russians drove the decision to cut production by 2 million barrels per day in an act that was seen in Washington as direct support for financing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine in Ukraine.
It’s fascinating that in Biden’s op-ed in the Washington Post before his July Middle East trip, he pointed out that it was necessary to improve U.S.-Saudi relations in order to compete with China. Mohammed bin Salman, of course, doesn’t see it that way at all. From his perspective, the game is now how he can use the China card to benefit Saudi Arabia, extracting as much as he can get from both Beijing and Washington without permanently alienating either.
The Saudis have been developing relations with China for years. But this is a new—and perhaps strategic—twist on a very old game that small and vulnerable powers play with great ones. When the great power—in this case the United States—deprioritizes the smaller power (or its region), the latter also recalibrates and seeks to reach out to other great powers to balance and compensate. What’s changed, though, is Saudi Arabia’s growing confidence—its willingness to act independently to defend Saudi interests—as well as the growing importance of China as a superpower in Saudi calculations.
What does China offer Saudi Arabia? For Mohammed bin Salman, China is not just a lever to be pulled against the United States. It has real value on its own. China is now Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, having outstripped U.S.-Saudi bilateral trade in recent years. As the New York Times reports, “Chinese companies are deeply enmeshed in the kingdom, building megaprojects, setting up 5G infrastructure and developing military drones.” The Chinese are not just doing infrastructure, either. Evan A. Feigenbaum, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy that Beijing is pursuing a multidimensional approach that includes technology and telecommunications. Last month, Chinese telecommunication company China Mobile International signed a memorandum of understanding with Riyadh “to advance the digital media ecosystem in Saudi Arabia.”
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