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Xi’s Saudi visit a sign of China’s growing influence in the Middle East

Posted By on December 13, 2022 @ 14:30

As Pax Americana has eroded in the Middle East over the years, Beijing has been availed of a unique opportunity to expand its influence in the region. China has grown in stature as not only a reliable and lucrative economic and trade partner but also a potential regional power balancer and security provider. President Xi Jinping’s visit last week to Saudi Arabia, where he was very warmly welcomed, essentially cemented a serious challenge to the United States on yet another front.

China’s involvement in the Middle East is not new. It has been nurturing good relations with the region’s main actors ever since the Iranian revolution of 1978–79 that toppled the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy and replaced it with the anti-US Islamic government of the monarch’s key religious-political opponent, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Beijing was the first cab off the rank to recognise Iran’s Islamic regime as a favourable revolutionary event. Bilateral ties rapidly grew to include Beijing’s help to Tehran with its nuclear program for peaceful purposes and selling arms to it. China imported large quantities of Iranian oil, meeting 11% of its annual national need by 2011. With China–US rivalry sharpening, Sino-Iranian economic, trade and military relations deepened after Xi launched his Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, with Iran assuming an important link in the initiative’s Silk Road component.

The relationship peaked with Xi’s visit to Tehran in January 2016, when his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, announced that the two sides planned to build economic ties worth up to US$600 billion. The March 2021 signing of the 25-year Iran–China Cooperation Agreement, involving large-scale Chinese investment in Iran’s infrastructural and industrial development as well as a military and intelligence partnership, marked another milestone. The US’s severe sanctions against Iran have done little to deter Beijing from persistently upgrading relations with the Islamic republic. This, plus the Iran–Russia axis, has proved instrumental in enabling Tehran to stand up to the US and two regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Yet Beijing has sought to balance its relations with Iran by also developing close ties with the country’s regional adversaries. While having forged intelligence and military cooperation with Israel (America’s key strategic partner in the region), it has wooed Saudi Arabia as its main oil supplier and a lucrative economic and trade partner.

Although the US has been Saudi Arabia’s main security provider since 1945 in return for an uninterrupted supply of oil, the Washington–Riyadh relationship has not always followed a steady trajectory. It has experienced several low periods, especially since the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda terror attacks on the US, most of whose executors came from Saudi Arabia. American criticisms of the Saudi autocracy have alerted Riyadh for some time to the need to secure stronger leverage vis-à-vis the US.

After Riyadh abandoned opposition to godless communism, the kingdom’s bolder and power-ambitious de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (widely known as MBS), made an official visit to China in August 2016. The two sides signed 15 memorandums of understanding in various fields including oil storage, water resources, cooperation on science and technology and cultural cooperation worth billions of dollars. This was followed with a visit to China by MBS’s father, Salman bin Abdulaziz, in March 2017. The result was a burgeoning of the volume of trade between the two parties to some US$65 billion in 2020.

US President Barack Obama’s original support of the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy uprisings, starting in late 2010, shook the Saudi leadership. Although he soon backed away in favour of Saudi Arabia and the forces of status quo in the region, Riyadh could no longer take Washington’s support for granted. The largely business-minded and politically impulsive President Donald Trump sought to restrengthen the US–Saudi traditional de facto alliance. In May 2017, Riyadh was the destination of Trump’s first foreign visit, partly to counter Chinese sway and largely to secure lucrative arms and trade deals and to build an anti-Iran Arab–Israeli front. He was accorded an extremely warm reception by MBS and his father, who invited all the Arab leaders for a summit with Trump.

However, relations have soured under President Joe Biden. Biden’s release of a US intelligence assessment that implicated MBS in the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 and his announcement of a recalibration of relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as the US defeat in Afghanistan, enhanced Riyadh’s view of America’s unreliability.

Ultimately, Biden backed down and made a painful visit to Riyadh in August to reset relations in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and consequent energy crisis. But it could not soothe Saudi distrust or stop Riyadh from joining forces with Vladimir Putin’s Russia within OPEC Plus to announce a reduction in oil output in defiance of the Biden administration.

Xi’s timely visit to Riyadh has seemingly enabled MBS to strengthen his position in relation to the US under Biden. He rolled out an exceptionally red-carpet welcome to Xi, as had been done for Trump. He invited the receptive leaders of all Saudi Arab allies to meet with him, demonstrating Riyadh’s influence in the Arab world and sending a message to Washington. His ageing father personally signed a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Xi. Despite the US’s concerns about security risks, Riyadh also concluded a memo of understanding with Huawei Technologies on cloud computing and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities.

Beijing’s strategic partnerships with Iran and Saudi Arabia, plus a similar relationship with Pakistan and growing influence in Syria (through Iran and Russia) and in Iraq, as well as close ties with Israel, have placed China in a very strong position vis-á-vis the US in the Middle East. Xi has not only successfully bonded his autocracy with those in the Middle East and enhanced all-round ties with the region’s main actors, but also positioned Beijing as a potential bridge builder between regional rival powers. The US is faced with a bigger challenge in the Middle East than that posed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

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