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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia: Striving for a political pole position

June 14, 2023

Riyadh has moved its focus from the US to China, Russia and others in a pragmatic approach to diversify its foreign and economic relations. Does that also mean a political shift?

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
The US and Saudi Arabia have had frank discussions about their relationshipImage: AMER HILABI/AFP

A recent meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ended with a high level of agreement on potential joint initiatives, openness but also with "acknowledging where we have differences," a senior US official told Reuters news agency.

This comment highlights the fact that the Saudi-US relationship has long ceased to be an unbreakable and taken-for-granted partnership.

"The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, especially under the presidency of Joe Biden," Stephan Roll, a Saudi Arabia researcher at the Berlin-based think tank German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW.

Another reason may have been the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, allegedly orchestrated from Riyadh, which led to a low point in their relations.

According to Roll, ties to Western countries as a whole have deteriorated. "These are seen in Riyadh as arrogant, unreliable and demanding," he told DW.

Rapprochement with China

The extent of the good relations between Saudi Arabia and China is also appreciated in Beijing, as was seen last December when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day state visit to Riyadh. He wanted to usher in a "new era" between the two countries, Xi declared at the time.

This also involves economic interests. For example, investment agreements worth about $50 billion (€46 billion) were signed during the talks, according to comments made by Saudi Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih. Furthermore, the Kingdom will supply 690,000 barrels of oil a day to China and in turn, the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei is to set up the highly efficient 5G technology in the Kingdom.

These agreements highlight Saudi Arabia's quest to modernize its economy economically and socially in order to make it fit for a stable and prosperous future without relying on oil wealth alone. 

Easing tensions in the Gulf

China is moving swiftly to establish its new political role in the region. In April, the foreign ministers of the two previously hostile major powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, shook hands in Beijing under Chinese auspices. The danger of an armed escalation in the Persian Gulf thus appears to have been considerably reduced.

"In principle, both countries do have an interest in bilateral relations, but it is Saudi Arabia in particular that is keen on it," Roll said. The rapprochement with Iran, he said, is indispensable in order to be able to settle the conflict in Yemen where the two adversaries are indirectly opposed to each other. "The end of the war is indispensable so that Saudi Arabia can make itself more attractive as a business and investment location and free up financial resources that were previously needed because of the war," Roll said.

He also suggests that Riyadh is grateful to the Chinese for their mediation work. "The US, for example, would not have been able to do that," Roll said, referring to the fact that the US and Iran do not maintain diplomatic contacts.

Iranian foreign ministry shows Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) shaking hands with Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (C)
Historic handshake: A China-brokered deal has brought Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together Image: Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP

Russia, war & oil

Riyadh has also been recalibrating its relations with Moscow, and is cooperating with Russia even at a time when Western countries have imposed sanctions over Russia's attack on Ukraine. Following a recent meeting of the OPEC+ cartel, Saudi Arabia promised to start cutting its oil production by one million barrels per day from July. The kingdom appears to be tolerating the fact that Russia has not given any assurances that it, in turn, would also limit production levels. Since the beginning of its attack on Ukraine and the loss of exports to Europe, Russia has been in urgent need of exports to Asia, especially India and China, to finance the war.

Russian oil plant Transneft
Saudi Arabia agreed to cut its oil output while Russia maintains its level in dire need for money. Image: Igor Russak/dpa/picture alliance

Tapping into BRICS

Saudi Arabia is also seeking proximity to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the BRICS nations. During a meeting in Cape Town a few days ago, they discussed the admission of new members. Saudi Arabia is attractive to them not least as a potential investor in the BRICS' New Development Bank.

Saudi Arabia's possible accession could provide the country with a host of potential partnerships and stronger trade relations. At the same time, this bloc — already accounting for 30% of oil and 22% of gas consumption worldwide — would grow as a counterweight to the Western energy market.

Joining the BRICS countries could, however, also help Saudi Arabia become a key political player. If competition between the West and a possibly emerging Eastern power bloc around Russia and China were to intensify, Saudi Arabia would have good ties to both sides.

China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu, Brazil's Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, India's External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L-R front) during the Friends of BRICS conference
The BRICS countries have an interest in ties with Saudi Arabia and its potential investment in the joint BRICS bank. Image: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/TASS/picture alliance

Venezuela to Israel

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's recent visit to Riyadh is another indication of Saudi Arabia's policy of establishing good contacts with many sides and not allowing itself to be tied down to one partnership alone. By welcoming the authoritarian leader, Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it shapes its foreign policy according to its own criteria.

However, the fact that Saudi Arabia also wants to continue to cultivate its relations with the Western world is evident not least in its relationship with Israel. Even if the country, unlike some of its neighbors, has not yet officially normalized its relations with the Jewish state, it is committed to maintaining a good relationship — despite its recent rapprochement with Iran, which regards Israel as an arch-enemy.

Here, too, Riyadh is pursuing concrete interests. For example, with the help of the US, it would like to build a nuclear power plant that would supposedly serve exclusively civilian purposes — a request the US is unlikely to agree to without the fundamental consent of Israel, whose security interests could be affected.

In order to foster Israeli approval, Saudi Arabia appears to have focused on culture and education issues and has largely purged Saudi textbooks of anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish passages.

The UK-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), whose research includes the issue of anti-Semitic sentiment in textbooks around the world and particularly in Islamic-majority countries, said that Saudi Arabia had recently revised its teaching materials accordingly. "Problematic examples" with regard to Jews and Christians had been removed, IMPACT-se said.

What are Saudi Arabia and Iran hoping to gain?

This article was adapted from German. 

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East