Foreign Policy

Saudis’ upcoming trip to China sends strong signal to US

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King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia is leading an entourage, including 25 senior princes and 10 ministers, to China later this month, part of a month-long tour of the Asia-Pacific, as the kingdom is seeking to hedge against an unpredictable and divided White House.

While it yearns for a renewed American role in the Middle East and reassurances from President Trump that Riyadh remains an ally, Saudi Arabia now faces a period of uncertainty due to the unpredictability of Trump’s foreign policy stance. That reason alone could explain why a trip to Beijing was planned before a trip to Washington.

{mosads}Despite its efforts at economic diversification, Saudi Arabia will remain dependent on oil exports for a long time, and China provides the kingdom with a stable market for its energy exports for decades to come.


In 2016, the kingdom signed 15 preliminary agreements with Beijing — ranging from house-building in Saudi Arabia to water projects and oil storage — during a visit by the king’s powerful son, Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman, who is spearheading the kingdom’s economic reform plan — Vision 2030. One should expect agreements to be signed during this visit as well. 

Salman’s visit to China, the nation that has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s biggest importer of oil, aims to build ties with the Asian giant and promote investment opportunities, including the possible sale of a 5 percent of its state firm — Saudi Aramco.

Saudi Arabia has succeeded in deepening its economic relations with China without damaging its trade relations with Washington, and a free-trade agreement between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council is expected soon.

The kingdom is now seeking to sustain its dominance in the Chinese energy market in the face of intensifying competition from of Iran and Russia. Last month, Saudi Arabia overtook Russia and regained its position as China’s top crude oil supplier.  

Relations between the countries go beyond oil, however. In diplomatic terms, Riyadh needs Beijing’s voice at the U.N. and on the global stage. Saudi Arabia and China are also gradually improving anti-terrorism and intelligence cooperation against radical Islam.

China can gain from intelligence-sharing with the Muslim kingdom. Last week, ISIS affiliates from China’s Uighur ethnic minority vowed to return home and “shed blood like rivers” in the first ever such threat against China. 

In the military sphere, the Saudis are increasingly using Chinese hardware. The kingdom is already using Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. Beijing reportedly also sold the Saudis DF-21 ballistic missiles in 2007 and perhaps even cruise missiles.

Both countries also agreed to cooperate in the nuclear field — signing two memoranda of understanding on nuclear cooperation — and in the field of aerospace. Last month, a Chinese navy task force finished a rare visit to Saudi Arabia with the goal of projecting power and expanding its presence in the strategically vital area of the Persian Gulf.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China will take on a bigger role in the Middle East — and in the Arabian Gulf in particular — and that it needs to strengthen its cooperation in security-related issues with the Persian Gulf states for that.

Saudi Arabia understands that there is currently no substitute for American military presence in the Gulf to curb Iranian encroachment, but it is not interested in finding itself becoming dependent on the U.S., particularly after the image of Washington as a stable pillar of security was damaged during the Obama years.

The Saudis project optimism that relations with the Trump administration will improve, even amid the Muslim travel ban and President Trump’s anti-trade stance. They believe President Trump will start pushing back on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East. 

However, like others around the world, the Saudis are still guessing how U.S. foreign policy might evolve under President Trump. They could use the China visit to send a signal to the U.S. that they have other options, should political circumstances change.

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, China is a stable partner that complements the kingdom’s relations with the U.S. beyond simple economics and trade. The Saudis realize that they are going to have to adjust to less-predictable politics from the U.S.


Yoel Guzansky is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Israel Institute.​

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags China–Saudi Arabia relations International relations Kings of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia–United States relations

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