The Arabs Look to China

Amid a relationship crisis between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Riyadh. Washington is watching its longtime Arab ally’s flirtations with China with concern.

It was not just the Chinese president’s coming to China. Because of the ongoing crisis between Washington and Riyadh, the worst in the history of their strategic alliance, Xi Jinping’s visit last week had a very particular frame of reference. It was no fist-bump visit like that of U.S. President Joe Biden with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last summer. Xi’s reception was more like the one received by Donald Trump during his first overseas trip as president in 2017. Xi was greeted with a bilateral state visit and a summit with heads of state from the Arab world.

The U.S. made no secret of jealously watching the events in Riyadh. Before the visit, a Pentagon official spoke about “security risks” for the U.S. “if our closest allies and partners cooperate too deeply with China.”

Increased Pressure on Biden

Forty agreements were established between Saudi Arabia and China, mostly on energy but also in the technology and artificial intelligence sectors. That may be critical to security, but the U.S. can at least be satisfied that the statements on military cooperation remained quite vague. No defense deals were concluded.

It is to be expected that pressure will increase on Biden to appear more obliging when it comes to arms sales and to not raise the issue of human rights regarding the war in Yemen, for instance.

A Broad Hint

The Arab Gulf states see the U.S. under Biden as an unreliable partner and are broadly hinting that they could take care of their military needs elsewhere. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said in Jeddah in July. But that is exactly what seems to be happening.

Nonetheless, voices in the United Arab Emirates, especially, are emphasizing that even if the Arab Gulf states’ economic future lies with China, the region’s strategic security remains “unmistakably” tied to the alliance with the U.S. That the powerful UAE president and emir of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed — a former “mentor” of MBS, of all people — did not attend the summit is being interpreted by some as a statement that Biden’s snub went too far.

Khashoggi’s Long Shadow

To the indignation of the U.S., in October MBS joined an OPEC+ agreement to reduce oil production, a move that has been construed as Russia-friendly. After all, in the meantime, the U.S. has recognized bin Salman’s immunity as a freshly minted Saudi prime minister — a position that by law is reserved for the Saudi king. Thus, there will be no trial for him in the U.S. for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

When it comes to “interference,” Arab autocrats have nothing to fear from Xi — and for the custodian of the holy Islamic sites Mecca and Medina, the fate of their Uighur sisters and brothers in faith is also not an issue. As different as their economies are, their authoritarian systems are very similar: modernity and technological progress without internal political opening. Much can be learned from China, the surveillance state.

Xi and Iran

The range of investments is broad, from the Chinese Silk Road project to the Saudi megacity Neom. The Saudis demand that investors establish their regional headquarters in their kingdom (something the UAE is also not happy about), and Chinese corporations have fewer issues with that than do those in the West.

Xi had already been in Riyadh once, in 2016, but he paired that visit with a trip to Tehran to signal equidistance. Although China concluded a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran in 2021, the Chinese head of state did not just give the Iranians the cold shoulder. Following a joint statement by China and the Gulf states, the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Iranian foreign ministry in Tehran.

Several points in the statement take a critical stance toward Iran, its nuclear program and its regional politics. But what really incited the Iranians was the observation that the issue of three islands in the Persian Gulf that are contested between Iran and the UAE, Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, should be resolved through “bilateral negotiations in accordance with the rules of international law.”

‘Part of Iran’s Soil’

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian described the islands as “inseparable parts of Iran’s pure soil,” and Iranian media raised the issue of Taiwan. After the British withdrawal in 1971, Iran had occupied the islands under the shah, although the UAE claims them for itself.

The development demonstrates China’s frustration with Iran’s nuclear policies. Without a nuclear deal, the sanctions against Iran will not be lifted, which means that the business dealings that China had planned with Tehran cannot take off. Xi probably also does not appreciate that Tehran, by supplying Russia with drones and perhaps soon also with rockets, has left the essentially neutral bloc led by China.

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