Mohammed bin Salman has a plan. Saudi Arabia's crown prince is seeking to provide the desert kingdom with a new foreign policy that will enable it to strengthen its strategic position in an unstable international context, still marked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Opportunities are limited. But the country's strongman on deputation from his father, the almost nonagenarian King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is calibrating his new diplomatic approach with an eye on distancing himself from the House of Saud's traditional ally, the United States, and triangulating his relations with Russia and China. "He is playing a dangerous game of three-way geopolitical chess," condenses former British diplomat John Dobson in the pages of the Sunday Guardian.
The unexpected diplomatic rapprochement with Iran, brokered in Beijing by China's chief diplomat Wang Yi, highlighted the renewed pragmatism of Mohammed bin Salman, a leader criticised in the past for erratic decisions that have led the ultra-conservative kingdom into an endless war in Yemen, an aggressive blockade of neighbouring Qatar and a bitter rivalry with Iran, its regional nemesis. With the agreement, the newly appointed Saudi prime minister seeks to close this last chapter to ease tensions in the Gulf. This would allow him to focus all his attention on the main objective with which he took the reins of the country, namely, to diversify his economy to reduce dependence on oil revenues.
At the same time, and by allowing Saudi Arabia to broker negotiations that were previously conducted unsuccessfully by Iraqis and Omanis, Saudi Arabia strengthens its bilateral relations with China, its main trading partner. And all this without unduly irritating what is still its key security ally, the United States. The Biden administration welcomed a deal that may calm the waters in the Middle East. However, the drift in Washington and Riyadh's agendas is evident.
Successive air strikes by the Houthis from Yemen on state oil company Saudi Aramco's facilities, which brought crude oil production to a halt several times, convinced Mohammed bin Salman that he could no longer count on the usual US protection. He had to find new partners. But, unable to make up for Washington's military backing, Riyadh explored the diplomatic route. "Instead of buying expensive US defensive weapons systems, the Saudis believe that Chinese and Russian influence over Iran can help bolster their security," notes Sarhang Hamasaeed, an analyst at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
The reopening of diplomatic channels with Iran, facilitated by China, and the Islamic Republic's commitment to persuade the Houthis to extend the truce in Yemen, showed that the strategy may be successful. Although some observers argue that Riyadh's newfound closeness with Beijing and Moscow is really aimed at securing - and ultimately bolstering - Washington's military support. Any scenario is valid for Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, as he seeks to shield his ambitious economic plans for the country.
"China was never forced to draw hard lines between Saudi Arabia and Iran because its policies in the Middle East in 1979 were relatively restrained, even in the context of today's limited approach," explains analyst Lucille Greer for the Wilson Center. "Moreover, the nature of the rivalry lent itself well to the Chinese approach". Beijing's position in the Gulf has always revolved around trade and investment. "China's credibility in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry rests on the perception that it deals with each nation on a transactional basis. It can rely on the mythologised history of the Silk Roads to rhetorically embolden both nations in their outreach to the West," summarises Greer on a strategy that seems to have worked to date.
But the Asian giant has tipped the balance in Riyadh's favour. "Chinese companies have made more progress with their Saudi counterparts than with their Iranian counterparts," Greer summarises in his report. While China may be more aligned with Iran in political terms, especially when it comes to challenging the US-created international order, in economic terms it prioritises its relations with Saudi Arabia. "China can boast of its mediation as a diplomatic success, but they must honour the agreement," says Amr Hamzawy, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The next step will be difficult. From détente to peaceful coexistence is a chasm, not to mention an eventual strategic partnership. Diplomatic contacts have been commonplace in Iranian-Saudi relations. Yet tensions have persisted.
Iran is clearly one step ahead of Saudi Arabia in its relations with Russia and China. Iranian, Chinese and Russian naval forces conducted joint manoeuvres in the Gulf of Oman in mid-March. "This exercise will help deepen practical cooperation between the navies of the participating countries and inject positive energy into regional peace and stability," read the statement issued by the Chinese Defence Ministry. This was not the first time that the three had coordinated their forces, the problem was the context of "extreme tension between Russia, Iran and China on the one hand, and the West on the other", notes analyst Suren Sargsyan in conversation with Atalayar.
"In this case we are not talking about a formal alliance. We are talking about three main actors that have contradictions, competition and, in many cases, different interests. However, they have come together because of common interests," Sargsyan explains. "Simultaneously, if Iran and Russia are under economic pressure, the West is pushing against the growth of China's influence in the world. In other words, it will be a common struggle against the global influence of the United States seen as a common challenge for three countries".
Iran and Russia have taken their relations to the next level since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Bound by sanctions and severe international isolation, their trade relations reached record levels in 2022. Tehran even supplied Shahed kamikaze drones to the Russian army for its campaign in Ukraine. Meanwhile, China sustains its economies. On this plane, Saudi Arabia is a difficult fit. On the one hand, Riyadh has not explicitly condemned the Kremlin's aggression; on the other, it has mediated occasional exchanges of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war and guaranteed $400 million in humanitarian aid with Kiev.
In October, the Biden administration believed it had convinced the Saudis to increase OPEC+ oil production amid an exponential rise in energy prices. Instead, Saudi Arabia opted at the last minute to defend a production cut until the end of the year. The measure favoured its interests, but also those of the Kremlin. Prices rose further. Riyadh and Moscow were closing ranks, although the Saudi negotiators would later say that it was a technical decision, collegially decided among the members of the energy cartel according to market conditions.
Mohammed bin Salman was sending a clear message to the US. "Russia is useful to Riyadh for one thing: to maintain the price of oil," explains Dobson. "Ties between the two countries expanded following the launch of the OPEC+ oil production deal in 2016 and King Salman bin Abdulaziz's historic first visit to Moscow in October 2017." The shared interests are strong, but both are competing for the same market. They are as distant as they are united.
China is the world's largest oil importer and its energy demand has been rising exponentially after the lifting of health restrictions imposed under its aggressive Covid zero policy. This means that Russia and Saudi Arabia are vying to increase their exports to the Asian giant. Riyadh has been ahead in recent months, but Moscow has taken the top spot as China's oil supplier, according to official figures.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh in December to meet Mohammed bin Salman. But Beijing's plans for the region do not only include the Wahhabi kingdom. China wants to strengthen its presence in the Arabian Peninsula through its hegemonic actor. This is why Xi also participated in the first China-Arab states summit and later in a meeting with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beijing wants to become a major player in the Gulf and fill the power vacuum left by Washington.
"The Saudi crown prince should be careful," warns Dobson. "The Biden administration has limits". Analyst Kristin Diwan writes in the Arab Gulf States Institute that there are 'contradictions' in Mohammed bin Salman's new diplomacy: 'Most obvious is the continued Saudi dependence on the US for security. I would recommend more strategic patience and coordination across the energy security partnership, but this is difficult to manage with an ambitious and impatient Saudi leadership and a long-standing sense of Washington's seniority with expectations of compliance'.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.