Skip to main content

Middle East

Why the Saudis are cosying up to China

Mohammed bin Salman and Xi Jinping in Beijing, 2016. Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As America withdraws from the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is turning towards China “with no apology”, says Karen Elliott House in The Wall Street Journal. In the Gulf kingdom, doubts about Joe Biden’s reliability are “ubiquitous and readily expressed”. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “managed President Trump effectively”, says a Saudi minister, but he “meshed” with President Xi. Now MBS is emulating Xi’s tactics: suppressing political dissent, tightening his grip on the economy and assertively pursuing a self-interested foreign policy. That means fewer lectures from Washington and more business with Beijing. 

“You name it, we are doing it with China,” says an adviser to the royal court. The Saudis might be “unnerved” by tensions between Washington and Beijing, but China is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner thanks to its thirst for Saudi oil. And when the US largely cut off supplies of offensive weapons to Riyadh, the Saudis started buying them from China instead. Saudi secondary schools have begun teaching Chinese. The Biden administration’s “lip service” about partnership with Saudi Arabia hasn’t been backed up with action. “Muddled” and “confused” are the words Saudi ministers use to describe US policy in the region. Ultimately, Riyadh is “pro-growth”, says an economic adviser to MBS. “Wherever we find an opportunity that works for us, we take it.” More and more, that means looking east.