Key Cooperative Research Institute for Policy Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the P.R.C (2022-2024)

Zou Zhiqiang,“Riyadh's look east policy explained”


(Source: China Daily Global,2023-08-28)

While Western countries challenge its core interests, China is helping Saudi Arabia achieve greater strategic autonomy

As great power competition intensifies, many smaller countries, particularly those in the Middle East, face the pressure to pick sides. But most countries in the region want to maintain their strategic independence. The growing consciousness of strategic autonomy shared by Middle Eastern countries reflects their desire to reduce dependence on foreign powers, protect their own national interests and realize their goals of building strong nations.

As the central country in Arab and Islamic worlds, Saudi Arabia has long harbored the ambition of wielding global influence. The country's Vision 2030 aims to turn it into the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds and become a global investment powerhouse and a global hub connecting Asia, Europe and Africa.

Against the backdrop of the United States withdrawing its troops from the Middle East and its declining influence in the region, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US is on a downward spiral, with Saudi Arabia displaying growing mistrust toward the US and no longer tying itself fully and unconditionally to the US' agenda. Rather, it is seeking maximum benefits for itself by maintaining a balanced diplomatic policy.

One reason why Saudi-US ties are souring is because of Riyadh's discontent with the pressure from the US on issues such as human rights, security and foreign affairs. Saudi Arabia has refused to toe the US line on the Ukraine crisis, or to impose sanctions on Russia. Instead, it has stuck to an independent diplomatic agenda.

Saudi Arabia also ignored the US' request to increase oil production to curb inflation and cripple the Russian economy. On the contrary, it cut its oil output and maintained energy cooperation with Russia under the framework of the OPEC+mechanism, displaying great policy independence.

Meanwhile, China's stature and influence in the Middle East and the world at large is growing. Saudi Arabia expects China to play a greater role in regional affairs, and help Saudi Arabia realize its economic transition and regional diplomatic goals.

In December 2022, the China-Arab States Summit, China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit and a bilateral summit between China and Saudi Arabia were held in Riyadh, greatly enhancing mutual strategic trust between the two nations.

In March, China brokered a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which saw the two archrivals resuming diplomatic ties. The rapprochement greatly improved Saudi Arabia's regional and global political environment.

In its pursuit of greater strategic autonomy, Saudi Arabia has been diversifying its diplomatic agenda, and is increasingly looking to the East. From a strategic point of view, Saudi Arabia's shift to the East is a countermeasure to the challenges posed by Western countries to its core interests, and also because the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative can help it achieve economic transformation. Therefore, Saudi Arabia pins high hopes on the comprehensive partnership with China, and has enhanced its economic, political and diplomatic ties with China.

Saudi Arabia has strengthened cooperation with China in investment and trade. In addition to bilateral trade, Saudi Arabia also expects China to give support to its economic transformation. China is Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner, with their bilateral trade hitting a record high of $116 billion last year. Meanwhile, it wants to attract more Chinese investment and technologies to develop areas key to its economic diversification strategy including infrastructure, digital economy, tourism and logistics.

Saudi Arabia has elevated the level of political mutual trust with China. It has established a comprehensive strategic partnership with China and has been continuously enriching the relationship. The rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under China's mediation has triggered a wave of reconciliation in the region, reflecting the high level of trust Saudi Arabia places on China. With China's growing influence in the Middle East, the popularity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has also grown in the region. When Iran was admitted as a full member of the SCO last year, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt also became dialogue partners of the organization.

As China-Saudi Arabia ties deepen, Chinese enterprises have been flocking to the Middle Eastern country to seek investment opportunities. On June 11, the 10th Arab-China Business Conference in Riyadh saw 30 investment agreements worth over $10 billion being inked in sectors such as technology, renewable energy and healthcare.

At the opening ceremony of the conference, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that China-Saudi Arabia trade and economic ties enjoy huge potential. Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud dismissed the so-called concerns expressed by the West and said Saudi Arabia sought cooperation instead of competition with China.

Currently, China and Saudi Arabia enjoy new development opportunities.

In addition to traditional energy trade, investment is expected to become a new driver of bilateral economic cooperation. Saudi Arabia also wants to increase interaction with China in emerging multilateral mechanisms. As members of the G20, both countries are maintaining close cooperation in global economic governance.

Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and has led other countries in the region to become major stakeholders of the bank. Saudi Arabia has recently expressed strong interest in joining the BRICS and is in negotiations to become a member of the New Development Bank. As such, Saudi Arabia is expected to cooperate with other emerging countries under the BRICS+ framework.

China-Saudi Arabia collaboration in political and security areas will also be bolstered.

On the one hand, China and Saudi Arabia have strengthened mediation endeavors on major regional issues. On the other hand, the two countries support each other in the global arena, and jointly oppose the interference by Western countries. Going forward, the two countries can expand cooperation in political and security areas under the framework of the SCO to express demands in this new multilateral mechanism, and coordinate the interests and relations of various parties, thus making more contributions to maintaining regional peace.

The author is a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.