Why Saudi snub of Biden on China-Iran deal may help US relations

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of Chinese diplomacy with Iran is being viewed as yet another snub by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against President Biden, however, the deal may ultimately help the United States’ strategy in the Middle East.

While experts see a risk of further damage to Washington’s relations with Riyadh, and the deal perhaps giving Beijing a leg up in the Middle East, those concerns are tempered by potential progress on peace in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s continued reliance on U.S. military might. 

The crown prince is largely seen as spiteful against Biden for calling the kingdom a pariah when it comes to human rights, and blaming Crown Prince Mohammed for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

“I think that the Biden administration is definitely in a very bad situation,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, explaining that the crown prince was particularly angered by the release of a U.S. intelligence assessment that said he approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi.

“The Crown Prince definitely has this in mind when signing up with the deal brokered by China, basically to score China a win and make the Biden administration look bad.” 

Yet experts and U.S. officials remain cautious over how much influence China commands in the region, with Saudi Arabia’s deep military ties with the U.S. a particularly strong bulwark against outside forces, and Iran’s foreign military adventurism and internal crises making it an unpredictable diplomatic partner. 

The White House, meanwhile, is playing down any talk of soured ties with Saudi Arabia — saying that Riyadh was in close contact with Washington over the conversations with Beijing and Tehran, given that the U.S. and Iran have no direct diplomatic contact. 

“This is something that we think is positive insofar as it promotes what the United States has been promoting in the region, which is deescalation, a reduction in tensions,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday. 

“Having other countries like China promote deescalation is not fundamentally adverse to U.S. interests. Frankly, it’s, in a way, rowing in the same direction.”

In fact, U.S. and Saudi ties received a boon on Tuesday when Riyadh announced it would purchase 121 Boeing jets for its new airline, a move welcomed by the White House.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of Chinese diplomacy with Iran is largely centered around ceasing hostilities in Yemen, said David Ottaway, Middle East fellow with the Wilson Center. 

Riyadh has failed to oust the Iranian-backed Houthis from the north of the country and is routinely threatened with missile strikes and drone attacks coming across their border. 

“The Saudis’ most immediate issue is getting out of Yemen, and the U.S. is in no position to help or put pressure on the Iranians, to in turn put pressure on the Houthis to reach an agreement,” he said.

And Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen are a key point of tension in its relations with the U.S., where Biden, with support from Congress, ended American assistance for Saudi offensive operations. 

“Ironically, were the Chinese now to succeed in helping to bring an end to that war and some kind of negotiated solution, that also helps US-Saudi relations,” Ottaway said. “Because the Biden administration no longer has Congress on its back demanding an end to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the mess they made in Yemen.”  

Still, Republicans are likely to seize on criticizing Biden for pushing Riyadh closer to Beijing, saying Democrats have alienated a key Gulf partner, lost another battle in the global competition against the Chinese Communist Party and jeopardized opportunities to establish ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has said opening ties with Israel is contingent on progress toward a Palestinian state, but Saudi officials have laid out additional conditions for Washington, such as a steady supply of weapons shielded from partisan politics or policy differences, a commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense and help building a civil nuclear program.

And Saudi Arabia has continued to show its preference for Republican negotiating partners in D.C., with Hung pointing to speculation that the Saudis sought to undercut Biden and Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections by cutting oil production despite U.S. opposition. 

“Many people interpreted his [the crown prince’s] actions of trying to lower oil production to push up the oil price as a kind of tactic to hurt Democrats’ election chances and help the GOP,” Hung said. 

Peter Krause, an associate professor of political science at Boston College and a research affiliate with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program, said he views the deal as a “tactical snub” from Saudi Arabia on the Biden administration.

“It’s one that’s reminding the Biden administration that they’re not the only game in town and it’s opening up for the Saudis other possibilities diplomatically and economically,” Krause said. “But I don’t think it’s a strategic snub because I think the Saudis still need the Americans more than any other major power in the region.”

But Brian Katulis, the vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, cautioned against what he called a lot of “noise” in Washington over the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal. 

“The notion the Saudis are sitting around trying to give the middle finger to the Biden administration is born a little bit more out of our own hyperpartisan analysis,” Katulis said, adding Saudi Arabia wants to “maintain the close relationship they have with the U.S. and I think they see the noise in U.S. politics for what it is.”

And Saudi Arabia is unlikely to blow up its relationship with Washington in favor of closer ties with Beijing, in particular given the strong military-to-military partnerships it’s had with the U.S. for decades.

“The very positive news, I can report, is that the perturbations of the relationships at the political level almost never cascade down to the military-to-military level,” Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central, which covers the Middle East, said in a February briefing with reporters at the Center for a New American Security. 

Still, the U.S. should keep an eye on countries in the Gulf region purchasing weapons from China or Russia, or diversifying their defense relationships, Grynkewich said, but with a recognition that the U.S. largely has an advantage with quality of material, training and support.  

“They [Gulf countries] also, I would say, recognize that there’s a fair amount of — extortion might be too strong of a word — but the leverage the Chinese get from selling things, or infrastructure projects, etc, can be frustrating. So without naming countries, there’s a number of them in the region who have expressed their frustration, when they purchase Chinese goods or they undergo a project with the Chinese,” Grynkewich continued.

“So the one way we have in our favor is we can always depend on the Chinese to be Chinese.”

And many experts say it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia and Iran will follow through on commitments made in its trilateral statement signed with China and that was published on Friday. 

The first concrete steps are for Saudi Arabia and Iran to reopen their embassies and exchange ambassadors within two months, according to a trilateral statement signed between officials from Riyadh, Tehran and Beijing and published Friday.

Saudi Arabia and Iran also agreed to implement a decades-old security cooperation agreement between them, that was first established in 1998 and expanded in 2001, and cooperate on the economy, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports and youth. 

But there’s a high degree of skepticism that China’s diplomatic overtures will bear success, if only because of the tempestuous nature of the region. 

“I’m very skeptical, how far this attempt — for Saudi Arabia and Iran to improve their relations — is going to go,” Ottaway said.

“The whole history of their relationship has been basically antagonistic, with a couple of brief interludes of efforts to improve their relations that did not succeed.”

Tags Biden Chinese diplomacy Mohammed bin Salman Saudi-Iran relations US-Saudi relations

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