Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia is being followed with concern in Washington. Americans fear a loss of influence in the Gulf. But the role that they will play there in the future will be decided not by the Chinese, but by the Americans themselves.
Seven Saudi fighter jets left a trail in the colors of China’s flag as China’s President Xi Jinping descended from his jumbo jet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Chinese flags waved along the streets of the Saudi capital, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted Xi with a strong handshake upon his arrival. The contrast with the cool reception Joe Biden received in August could not be greater. The U.S. president avoided shaking hands with the crown prince, and bin Salman limited the ceremony to a bare minimum.
The crown prince makes no secret that the guest from the Far East is more welcome than this old Western ally. That should be no surprise. China has long been the most important trade partner for the oil-rich state and the biggest consumer of its oil. Unlike the Americans and the Europeans, Beijing stayed quiet when it came to the war in Yemen, the persecution of dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi and the sentencing of female activists to decades in jail for a tweet.
Saudi Arabia is thanking China by supporting its narrative that the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang serves to fight Islamic terrorism. For Beijing, this support is even more meaningful because of Saudi Arabia’s special standing among Muslims as the custodian of Islam’s holy sites. In short, both states have refrained from criticizing each other and do not make their cooperation contingent on politics.
Worries about Losing Influence
Washington is observing the growing closeness of the Saudis to China with concern. For days, the media have been full of analyses about the meaning of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States’ new focus on the East. Xi’s visit feeds the fear that China could replace the U.S. as the most important partner among the Gulf States. This is especially the case given that the alliance with the U.S. is facing a crisis and that Saudi Arabia recently snubbed Biden by reducing oil production.
It is also clear, however, that China neither can nor wants to replace the U.S. as guarantor for security in the Gulf region. Even though Beijing aims to secure maritime trade by expanding its marine bases in the Indian Ocean, it has no ambitions of building up a greater military presence in the Gulf. China also has no interest in taking Saudi Arabia’s side in the conflict with Iran and sacrificing its close economic ties with Tehran to that end.
Moreover, China is not a potential source for providing weapons to the Gulf States, whose militaries are armed with Western arms and remain dependent on the West for ammunition, maintenance and replacement parts. The Gulf States are aware of all of this. They also are not trying to replace the U.S. as a partner. Instead, they want to convince Washington to again take up its role as security guarantor in the conflict with Iran and the Houthi militia in Yemen.
America Must Decide for Itself
As Anwar Gargash, foreign policy adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, underscored before Xi’s visit, the U.S. very clearly remains the primary strategic power. To secure the alliance for the coming decades, however, requires “clear, codified and unambivalent commitments.” Thus, it is not up to China whether the U.S. remains the leading military power in the Gulf. It depends on its readiness to continue its involvement.
But there is increasing doubt in Washington about whether this involvement still makes sense. The U.S. still has an interest in the stability of the Gulf region and in containing Iran. But the question remains whether the U.S. still wants to send tens of thousands of its soldiers to guarantee the security of countries that do not share its values and care noticeably less about Americans’ desire for keeping down the price of oil. Only the Americans can answer this question.
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