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Saudi Arabia: MBS can get closer to China but he still needs US protection

In 2022, Saudi Arabia has been flirting with Russia and China economically, but its dependence on the US for military protection is not going to end any time soon
Saudi Crown Prince greets Chinese President Xi Jinping, during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, in Riyadh on 9 December, 2022 (AP)
Saudi Crown Prince greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh on 9 December 2022 (AP)

The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Riyadh is believed to be the culmination of new strategic alliances initiated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). While economic relations between the two countries have been flourishing for several years, the crown prince believes that it is time to engage with China at the highest political level.

Obviously, Saudi engagement with China, or Russia for that matter, is always interpreted as a drive away from Washington.

It is true that in 2022 US-Saudi relations were not at their best. Riyadh saw Washington as withdrawing from the region with no future plans to boost its shrinking influence. It has recently failed to protect Saudi oil fields but Washington continues to expect its partners in the region to fulfil its wishes.

It seems that, at the moment, the world cannot afford to antagonise MBS, sitting as he does on important oil resources when they are in short supply

Saudi Arabia refused to increase its oil production after being asked by the US to do so to ease the global energy crisis. However, MBS was granted immunity in US courts and cannot be prosecuted for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi or other crimes. After President Joe Biden’s visit to Riyadh in July, and this recent ruling, MBS felt strong and empowered.

It seems that, at the moment, the world cannot afford to antagonise MBS, sitting as he does on important oil resources when such resources are in short supply. As such, MBS can demonstrate to his domestic audiences that he is an independent actor in command of his destiny and guarding Saudi sovereignty against Washington’s orders.

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To appear defiant always appeals to local constituencies and makes nationalistic leaders look strong in the eyes of their followers. MBS currently looks like a strategic leader, looking to diversify his alliances in response to the current political climate while fiercely guarding the independence of his nation.

Authoritarian rule

MBS shares with Russia and China certain economic interests. Oil is obviously key to both countries as Russia has a vested interest in selling it at a high price to finance its war in Ukraine while China wants oil to keep flowing from Saudi Arabia at a reasonable price. Both Saudi Arabia and China have the potential to invest surplus funds in each other's economies. 

Furthermore, the three countries share an ideological outlook that links economic prosperity to authoritarian rule rather than liberal democracy. Capitalist development remains state-led with a strong belief that only authoritarian rule can deliver prosperity and growth. In all three countries, democracy is perceived as detrimental to economic growth and all are keen to show that prosperity is achievable under strong one-man rule.

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MBS engaged with privatisation and liberalisation of the economy, but he refuses to let go of the economy altogether and allow a weak Saudi private sector to take the initiative and be credited for any growth. He still wants the state to be at the centre of leadership and economic growth.

This outlook suits his new partners in Moscow and Beijing, both of whom appreciate opaqueness and the dismissal of any notions of human rights, labour laws and other trappings of western liberal democracy.

However, Saudi Arabia’s shared economic interests with Russia and China, in addition to their ideological proximity, are not enough to displace the US completely from the Arabian Peninsula.

MBS may exaggerate his ability to exercise agency when it comes to choosing and diversifying Saudi's economic partners but this agency is limited when it comes to military and political alliances.

He must be watching with great interest the West’s unified reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the vast economic and financial sanctions regime imposed on Moscow. For a country dependent on oil, with a currency pegged to the US dollar, and a military equipped and trained by the US, it would be foolish to imagine that the US can be replaced by other powers in the near future.

US red lines

Saudi Arabia continues to rely on the US for protection. Neither China nor Russia can play this role. China is reluctant to be dragged into any military conflict outside its borders and is unlikely to rush to defend Saudi Arabia against any foreign attacks.

Russia appears stuck in a war of attrition in Ukraine without the prospect of an imminent victory.

If MBS continues to flirt with China at the expense of relations with the US, he may end up actually accelerating US disengagement with the region

If the Saudi crown prince continues to flirt with China at the expense of relations with the US, he may end up actually accelerating US disengagement with the region, and in particular with his own country.

He can continue to cosy up to China economically but he must know when he crosses US red lines. Any Saudi-Russian alliance would be very dangerous for Riyadh for obvious reasons.

MBS can be as assertive as he wants and as much as his propaganda machine allows him to do so. But to think that, in the short term, he can replace the US with China is not only unrealistic but also foolish.

He will have to accept that, as long as Saudi's military capabilities are not only weak but also dependent on the US, China's involvement with Arabia will have to remain economic and technological.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr
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