The recent news about the Chinese President’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the possibility of reaching an agreement to sell the Saudi oil in yuan, which raised fears that Saudi Arabia might side with Russia amid the heightened geopolitical tensions due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Experts also believe that allowing oil payments to be paid in yuan may pave the way for the establishment of a parallel system of international payments in which the Chinese yuan will occupy the importance and strength similar to the US dollar. Also, it will help Russia bypass the sanctions imposed by Western countries after it invaded Ukraine, as Moscow can use the yuan as well.
Despite all these analyzes, the recent news has seriously raised many questions about the extent of the development of Saudi-Chinese relations, as some assert that despite the involvement of Saudi Arabia and China in what is known as a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, the relations between the two countries can represent an “alliance” in the sense of describing Riyadh and Beijing “the two allies”.
Saudi Arabia has recently strengthened its relations with China at all levels, including political and military, which threatens to disrupt its historical alliance with America. This is especially after Saudi Arabia and China expressed mutual desires to enhance bilateral relations, which were manifested in the increase in trade exchange indicators, the opening of Chinese banks in Saudi Arabia, arms deals, and Saudi Arabia’s adoption of teaching the Chinese language in some government schools and universities as a unique Arab precedent.
On the Saudi level, the Saudi openness to China is not an exception. Rather, it reflects a strategy adopted by Saudi Arabia, which aims to diversify its allies and head east towards Russia, India, and China. But China took the largest share because of the capabilities and position it enjoys as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and as the second economic power in the world.
More importantly, the development of the relationship with China sends messages to some allies, especially the US, and specifically the democratic trend, which pursues a hard policy towards the Kingdom, that Saudi Arabia is not a hostage to a specific country, even if it is in the status of the United States, but that Saudi Arabia has alternatives to its international alliances that enable it to protect its interests.
On the other hand, at the Chinese level, China views Saudi Arabia as a central country in the Arab region and the Islamic world. Cooperation with it will legitimize China’s foreign policy with Arab and Islamic countries, and enhance its international standing in its relations and its weight in the international balance of power. This is special because, over the past two years, China has suffered from a distortion of its image in the Islamic world, as a result of the repressive policies it applies to Uyghur Muslims and is afraid of calls for economic boycotts and a state of hatred towards them. Therefore, it sees developing its relationship with Saudi Arabia with its religious standing as important in improving its foreign image.
Moreover, for its conflict with the United States, and for what its strategic project (Silk Road) requires to strengthen its presence – especially the military one – in the Arab region in the future, and by Saudi Arabia’s geographical location and its financial capabilities, China is keen to give Saudi Arabia special attention in its strategy.
This common vision of cooperation between the two countries has been translated into a tangible reality. Currently, China is the largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia and the largest importer of Saudi oil, and this in itself is an indication of the great development that the relations between the two countries have known, specifically since the year 2000. According to the Saudi Economic Journal (February 22, 2019), Saudi-Chinese trade recorded A big leap during 2018, as it rose by 32%, equivalent to 56bn riyals, to reach about 230.3bn riyals, compared to 174.3bn riyals in 2017, making China the most important trading partner of the Kingdom during 2018.
Also in 2017, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, during his visit to China, signed a cooperation agreement in the field of space research between the two countries, where the Saudis decided to establish an infrastructure for research, development, and production of satellites with Chinese assistance to gain independence in this field.
Most importantly, the military relations preceded their diplomatic counterpart between Riyadh and Beijing, as features of military cooperation began to crystallize between the two countries in 1980 after the United States refused to sell remote fuel tanks for F-15 Eagles to Saudi Arabia.
Thus, as a direct reaction, and in November 1985 the first official meeting between China and Saudi Arabia was held in Oman, and in 1988 Riyadh reached an agreement to obtain between 50 to 60 “Dongfeng 3” missiles, which are medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads that belongs to the Dongfeng (East Wind) system, which China launched in the framework of its military cooperation with the Soviet Union following the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance concluded between them in the year 1950. That deal was enough to open up positive prospects for relations between Riyadh and Beijing and push towards a deep rift. In Saudi-US relations.
Re-reading history in light of the current changes, the most important of which is the increasing American pressure, leads us to one inevitable result. This result is that the natural orientation of the Arab countries and their economic, political and cultural interests and the extension of their geostrategic relationship will be east and not west. Certainly, this Asian axis led by China in the face of the western axis will lead to the breaking of unipolarity or at least mitigating its severity. This, therefore, will lead to restoring balance to the international system, increasing the margin of movement for the Arab countries, and easing the pressures they are facing at the current stage.
Dr. Marwa El-Shinawy: Assistant Prof. at International American University for Specialized Studies (IAUS)