Up until 1979 America employed what is often referred to as a twin pillar strategy in the Middle East. That is to say that it used Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah as its stalwart allies in the region and the aim of its policies was to ensure regional stability through cementing, prolonging, protecting and expanding the powers of these allies.
Come the Iranian Revolution, however, and the American twin pillar policy was – obviously enough – reduced to a one pillar policy. Thus America became ever more wedded to Saudi Arabia and a relationship of mutual dependency was yet further embedded. Indeed, it is only in recent years that the Saudi-American relationship has come under any sustained problems.
Originally, Saudi Arabia needed American assistance to help advance industrial and economic sectors. Cue, for example, in 1948, the creation of ARAMCO, the Saudi-American joint venture to exploit the black gold found under Saudi soil in epic quantities. Today, however, Saudi Arabia is a functioning and advanced country in the world system, able to manage without tutelage and capable of finding and exploiting its resources as and when it sees fit.
Another integral aspect of American assistance came in the form of military support, training and materiel. Indeed, since the inception of this relationship there has been a tacit understanding that America guarantees Saudi territorial integrity, which became more of an explicit fact when America organised coalition forces to protect the Kingdom and evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990-1. Indeed, this is still the crucial cohesive feature of their relationship to this day and provides the one remaining ‘realist’ factor tying the countries together; for although Saudi can procure weapons from other countries, no one but America can offer the military blanket that Saudi seeks, for the moment.
However, various agreements in the last two weeks – not to mention more general trends in relations – clearly demonstrate that other countries such as Russia and more notably China are positioning themselves to act as a long term alternative to America.
The Saudi Minister of State Security, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan has recently returned from Russia where he met with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin after agreeing on various military contracts. Before these talks were publicised, according to Moscow’s Daily News Bulletin, it was rumored that the two countries have been discussing arms deals ranging from the delivery of 150 state-of-the-art T-90S tanks to medium range air defence systems. Specifically which systems have been bought is not known, but both parties were adamant that this would be the beginning of increasing ties in all sectors in the future.
In terms of China, it is simply a question of supply and demand. Saudi has around 739 billion barrels of proven oil reserves compared to the rest of the world’s paltry 578 billion barrels. Furthermore, China has a population of some 1.3 billion people which is predicted to rise to some 1.5-2 billion by 2050. This is, however, only half the story as China’s massive urban migration results in the growth of an ever more affluent population demanding more energy-consuming products (air conditioners, cars etc). All of these factors coalesce into the almost unbelievable statistic that the Chinese demand for oil is predicted by some to rise by an astonishing 960 percent in the next two decades.
The Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao as President when the time comes, decided to go to Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his first foreign trip a little over a week ago. He arrived in the Kingdom along with representatives of more than 200 Chinese companies eager to increase trade and investment, all with the long-term goal of securing China’s energy future. After meeting Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and the Crown Price Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud in Jeddah, Xi also attended and indeed addressed the International Energy Conference before flying to Dhahran where he met with the CEO of ARAMCO.
These are but two examples of Russia and China courting Saudi Arabia. Yet the relationship is not only one-way. It must not be forgotten that both Russia and China have significant advantages over America or even Europe as would-be trading partners from Saudi Arabia’s perspective.
Both of these countries are infamous for their strict separation of any moral issues from their foreign policies. This has two separate effects. Firstly, it means that neither Russia nor China will ever lecture another country on any kind of human rights, democratic or political issues, believing in the utter sanctity of sovereignty. Indeed, this was clearly shown on July 12 when Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council Resolution against Zimbabwe on such grounds. This, for obvious reasons, could well be attractive to Saudi Arabia, should they ever get tired of America’s preaching.
The second effect of this policy can be most clearly seen in the Chinese case: they are willing to sell arms to countries that others are not. This can manifest itself in terms of China breaking an arms embargo or in the selling of nuclear technology or indeed, large ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, such as the ones they sold to Saudi back in the early 1990s.
Both China and Russia realize, however, that Saudi Arabia is not going to leave the American camp any time soon as no one can replicate American security guarantees for the Kingdom. The only chance of a change in the near future would be if Saudi were to acquire a nuclear deterrent, perhaps in much the same way that Israel has i.e. unofficially. This, however, would be a risky venture in a volatile region where international rivalries are simmering just under the surface.
Overall it appears that Russia and China are playing a slow and steady game for the long term, almost mirroring the fact that change in Saudi Arabia – if indeed it ever occurs – happens at an almost glacial pace. Therefore, America must not simply rest on the laurels of the status quo but realiz that Saudi Arabia, like all countries, assiduously follow Lord Palmerstone’s dictum that countries have neither permanent friends nor allies in the international system, only permanent interests.
David B. Robertsis a Cairo-based doctoral candidate at the University of Durham. His website can be found at http://thesinosaudiblog.com/