Trans-Pacific View

China and Saudi Arabia: The Global Ambitions of Mohammad bin Salman

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Trans-Pacific View

China and Saudi Arabia: The Global Ambitions of Mohammad bin Salman

Insights from James Dorsey.

China and Saudi Arabia: The Global Ambitions of Mohammad bin Salman
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with James M. Dorsey, Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, is the 180th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

How does China fit into the worldview of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)?  

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil client. The U.S. is becoming a self-sufficient exporter of oil. Saudi Arabia needs to secure other customers. China has become a crucial partner to Saudi Arabia. In this context, uncertainty over the reliability of United States as an ally, which predates [current President] Trump, going back to President Obama, looms large in Saudi Arabia’s strategic calculus. President Obama’s global view focused on the pivot to Asia, which resulted in the reduction of the Middle East’s strategic importance. In addition, Obama concluded the Iran nuclear treaty. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an existential threat.

For Riyadh, Trump is a more welcome partner for Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran. However, Trump is increasingly seen as unreliable and very transactional with an isolationist view of the U.S. role in global geopolitics. Even on Iran, Trump is not reliable, with waivers given to eight countries on sanctions, including China.

The key question is how long China can walk the tightrope between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and at what point will it become an issue? Ultimately, China’s relationship with Iran is much older than China’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Chinese and Iranians understand each other on a deeper level, as empires that did not interfere with each other. Each country bookends the Asian continent.

Iran as well as North Korea are disruptors of international order. China is not unfavorable to a certain degree of disruption. Iran has a highly educated population, technologically savvy. Iran as a landlink for China’s BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] makes Iran important since one BRI corridor ends in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia is important to China, but the United States is still the Middle East defense umbrella. Chinese doesn’t want to take over the defense umbrella in the region. Chinese policy in the Middle East takes the U.S. into account, and Beijing won’t rock the boat in the Middle East vis-à-vis the United States.

Even though Saudi Arabia’s relations with China are growing, their agendas are not fully aligned. The most prominent example is in Pakistan on two issues. It is not clear if Saudi funding of militant anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian madrassas that dot the Iran-Pakistan border is government-sourced or tacitly endorsed by Riyadh. Either way, it requires some sort of acquiescence from Riyadh. Sufficient evidence indicates the Saudis are considering the possibility of destabilizing Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities. This thinking is shared by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton hinted at it in a video published on Twitter at the time of the Warsaw conference in February.

If Saudi Arabia and the U.S. wanted to wage war against Iran, Balochistan would be part of the battleground, which is the center point of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China-Pakistan relations are strained today due to Imran Khan’s demand for a refocus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which the Chinese don’t want to do immediately. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bailed out Pakistan. Pakistan was going to welcome Saudi investment in Balochistan, announced as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but China said [Saudi] investments weren’t part of it.

Why is China’s recognition of MBS’s leadership important to Saudi Arabia’s economic future?      

China’s recognition of MBS matters not so much because of MBS the man, but MBS as the de facto king of Saudi Arabia. MBS is increasingly turning Saudi Arabia into one-man rule. Doing business with Saudi Arabia means doing business with MBS. Chinese support for MBS is more important to MBS than for China. The pomp and circumstance of MBS’s recent visit to Asia compensated for the cold response from the U.S. and the West. The Asia trip cast MBS in a different light and demonstrated that key world powers are perfectly willing to do business with him, rather than treat him as a pariah. He wanted to project that he remains internationally respected  ̶  a message he wanted to amplify at home and abroad.

How is MBS balancing China and Russia vis-à-vis the United States?

Based on his statements since 2015, before the Jamal Khashoggi killing, MBS was determined to do whatever was necessary to bring the United States back to the Middle East. One approach was to create an imbroglio in Yemen to compel the U.S. to re-engage in the Middle East, which worked very well until the killing of Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia’s inability to come up with a coherent, convincing narrative to explain Khashoggi’s murder has caused consternation in Congress and friction between Capitol Hill and the White House.

It is highly unlikely that MBS could not have been affected by the Khashoggi killing in one of two ways: he either realizes that power is not absolute and must be managed or he’s emboldened. My sense is that MBS is emboldened, and this emboldened position could further complicate relations with the U.S. and impact relations with China and Russia.

Specifically, Saudi Arabia must manage the geopolitics of energy with Russia trying to manipulate energy markets, despite heavy Gulf investment in Russia. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s weapons acquisition from Russia, including the S-400 defense system, as well as Russia’s role in Syria and relationships with Iran and Chinese underscore the high stakes in an extremely fluid geopolitical landscape.

Explain the impact of Saudi Arabia’s decision to use Huawei 5G technology.

Chinese did MBS the favor of honoring him. Saudi Arabia won’t stab China in back with refusing 5G technology. Riyadh doesn’t have the same kind of concerns that the U.S. has. It’s not about the technology, it’s about trust. The U.S. would be less concerned if Samsung or Nokia led 5G technology innovation, because South Korea and Finland are not being accused of industrial espionage like China. The relationship between Huawei and the Chinese government is very different from Nokia-Helsinki and Samsung-Seoul’s government relationships.

China is Saudi Arabia’s model for economic growth – economic liberalization with domestic repression. Saudi Arabia has to upgrade its autocracy to a 21st century in which autocracies have to perform; provide jobs, public security, and goods; be more attentive to the public’s aspirations and sentiments. The Chinese model is far more relevant for Saudi Arabia’s economic development than the potential national security risks of using China’s 5G technology.

What are the foreign policy implications of growing Saudi Arabia-China cooperation on U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations?

Once [the furor over] Khashoggi has played out in Congress and the White House, we’ll know how U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations will evolve. It’s not a zero-sum game. Washington would not be upset as a matter of principle regarding closer Saudi Arabia-China relations.

Nuclear weapons could also become an issue. Saudi Arabia is more than happy to deliver. Chinese and Saudis have signed at least one nuclear agreement that allows Saudi Arabia to put certain building blocks in place. The U.S. is not willing to sell Saudi Arabia killer drones. China has no problem and has built a manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia. Bolstering the country’s military capabilities is aligned with MBS’s vision for building an industrial military complex.

Military relations between Saudi Arabia-China particularly in terms of arms sales will raise issues in U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations and could be a key indicator of the direction in bilateral relations.

Some say Saudis and Americans have split up global markets with the U.S. emerging as the world’s largest exporter, whereby Saudis sell oil to China, and the U.S. sells gas to China. Americans understand Saudis need to sell oil to major clients such as China to maintain stability.