TIPP: Xi’s Saudi Arabia trip signals multipolarity in the Middle East

(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images)

By TIPPINSIGHTS EDITORIAL BOARD, TIPP Insights

Responding to the Chinese President’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said that Riyadh remained a key ally and issued a warning on China. He said that America is “not asking nations to choose between the U.S. and China.” Still, he pointed to Beijing’s “manner” as “not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order.” That the White House felt necessary to issue such a warning, points to the shifting geopolitical landscape.

A Level Playing Field

Riyadh is extending a warm welcome and rolling out the red (in fact, purple) carpet for the Chinese President. The implication is clear – China is a valued partner, at par with or, at least, no less than America.

But the level of ease and camaraderie between President Xi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is bound to be different. The reason is that the two nations and leaders have much in common.

Beijing and Riyadh carry a blotted human right record. Yet, the two maintain a “no interference in domestic policy” rule. It means that the Crown Prince, and most likely the press, will not raise uneasy topics like the repression of Uyghurs or aggression against Taiwan. There will be no criticism, condemnation, or calls for course correction. Accepting each other’s authoritarian regimes and forms of government, indeed, makes for a smooth platform.

Energizing Ties

Beyond acceptance lies the burgeoning trade relationship. Today, Saudi Arabia is China’s largest oil supplier, having replaced Russia. America is no longer the country’s largest trading partner – Beijing is. In 2021, their bilateral trade was pegged at 87 billion dollars.

In return, Saudi Arabia has bought into President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese firms are building megaprojects and setting up 5G infrastructure in the Arab country. China Mobile International has inked a deal “to advance the digital media ecosystem in Saudi Arabia.” Beijing has sold drones, warplanes, and other strategic weapons to Riyadh. The Arab state’s bountiful oil and natural gas reserves, international ports, and financial markets are a big draw for the Chinese.

But, it is almost certain that President Xi has dreams larger than profitable trade deals and a favorable opinion. Beijing wants to cement its geopolitical presence. It intends to breach Washington’s sphere of influence. The third-term President’s visit to the Middle East signals his intentions.

Beyond Saudi Arabia

President Xi is not stopping with high-level meetings with Saudi royalty and officials. Besides the bilateral summit, he and MBS will head a China-Gulf summit with the GCC. The leaders of Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain are expected to attend. Also on the agenda is a meeting between the Chinese leader and the leaders of the Arab League.

Strategic partnership agreements are expected to be signed during the three-day visit. President Xi is likely to seek more favorable energy deals. Weapon sales are expected to be finalized, with the growing Chinese arms industry looking to expand its markets.

Security Partner

Saudi Arabia used to be America’s backyard in the Middle East. The U.S. remains Riyadh’s key security partner. But, over the past few decades, cracks have appeared between the two nations.

Riyadh was miffed for being kept out of the Iran nuclear deal. The Arab world was surprised when America did not respond to the missile attacks unleashed by Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels on Saudi’s oil production facilities. The murder of Saudi journalist and American citizen Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul once again racked up tensions that had begun to die down since the 9/11 terror strikes. MBS-led oil-producing cartel’s decision to cut oil production, ignoring Washington’s request, led to a new low.

Despite the many challenges, Washington and Riyadh have managed to keep their relations from severing. The kingdom still needs America’s military might to keep its enemies in the region at bay. For now, Beijing cannot provide the military support the kingdom needs on land or in the Persian Gulf.

But, the desert sands are forever shifting with the changing winds. China is building its military might by leaps and bounds. Arab nations are no longer docilely following Washington’s lead in foreign policy. Oil and security remain critical currencies in the region.

Given the ground realities, whether Beijing will oust Washington remains to be seen. The U.S. must stem the erosion of influence to preserve the rules-based order. The outcome of Xi-MBS meetings will determine the course of America’s engagement with the Arab world.

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