Over the past decade, the foreign policies of many Middle Eastern states have evolved towards a multi-aligned approach, according to the US bimonthly Foreign Affairs. Saudi Arabia, a traditional partner of the United States, no longer seems satisfied with the US strategy of creating and leading exclusive blocs. Riyadh has therefore sought to develop its partnerships with various powers, mainly by pointing its compass eastwards, in particular towards China and India.
A few months after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia, where $50 billion worth of investment deals were signed, the Kingdom announced the signing of some fifty investment agreements with India. These new deals come on the sidelines of the Saudi-India Investment Conference attended by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in New Delhi, following the conclusion of the G20 summit on Saturday, reports Asharq Business.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia's position at the G20 summit in India demonstrates the Kingdom's ability to maintain a balance in its economic relations with its major trading partners. Indeed, in addition to cooperation agreements with China, Riyadh has been involved in the US project for an economic corridor linking India, the Middle East and Europe.
This raises the question of the significance of Riyadh's rapprochement with the major Asian powers: does it mean a real decline in US influence on Saudi soil? This is what we will try to clarify in this report.
A pragmatic approach
Saudi Arabia is trying, with mixed success, to rebuild its image on the international stage, says Anna Jacobs, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. Saudi policies are shaped by the ambitions of its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to consolidate his grip on power, make the country less dependent on hydrocarbon exports and transform the kingdom into a great middle power, pursuing his interests by increasing its regional and global influence.
With this in mind, the Vision 2030 initiative was born, whose main objective is to better position Saudi Arabia to overcome the global transition to clean energy through economic diversification. Riyadh has thus sought to expand its external ties, especially with China, India and even Russia, in a pragmatic approach aimed at diversifying its foreign and economic relations.
Saudi Arabia is also turning to China and India in an attempt to move away from its traditional dependence on the US. This move is motivated both by the deterioration of its bilateral relationship with Washington since the start of the Biden administration and by its desire to position itself as a major leader in the so-called Global South.
A difficult relationship between Washington and Riyadh
Since the US president took office in 2020, the relationship between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Joe Biden has deteriorated. During his presidential campaign, candidate Biden expressed his intention to transform the Saudi kingdom into a 'pariah state'. Once elected, President Biden decided to declassify a report that denied bin Salman's responsibility for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.
These tensions did not prevent Joe Biden from travelling to Saudi Arabia on 15 and 16 July 2022 to meet with his Saudi counterpart. However, this meeting only served to highlight the limits of US influence in the region: the Kingdom now wishes to establish economic and commercial exchanges with a wider range of countries, including Russia, China and African countries.
On 5 October 2022, another crisis angered the US president. OPEC+ decided to reduce its production quotas to 2 million barrels per day in order to support higher oil prices. Saudi Arabia has been accused of supporting influential OPEC+ member Russia by helping to keep oil prices high, allowing Vladimir Putin to finance his offensive in Ukraine. However, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhane has explained that the production cut represents a "purely economic decision taken unanimously by the member countries" of the organisation, says Céline Tabou, China specialist and editor at IPSA Initiative pour la Paix et la Sécurité en Afrique.
The US is trying its best to salvage its relationship with Saudi Arabia, in particular by pointing to positive signals from Riyadh, such as the Saudi vote in favour of the UN resolution condemning Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory, and the announcement of $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Closer ties with China
Diplomatic relations between China and Saudi Arabia date back to King Abdullah's visit to China in January 2006. It was the first state visit to China by a Saudi ruler since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1990. While Riyadh continued to maintain relations with China without ever questioning the US presence in the region, exchanges between Beijing and Riyadh have evolved in line with the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and the US.
The extent of good relations between Saudi Arabia and China is also appreciated in Beijing. Last December, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day state visit to Riyadh. Xi Jinping said at the time that he wanted to usher in a "new era" between the two countries.
The two countries also share economic interests. For example, investment deals worth around $50 billion (46 billion euros) were signed during the meeting, according to Saudi Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih.
According to the Saudi Statistics Authority, the volume of trade between China, considered the world's largest oil-consuming country, and Saudi Arabia reached some $106 billion in 2022, representing a growth of 30% over the previous year.
The energy issue was at the centre of the talks. Several agreements were reached: the Kingdom will supply 690,000 barrels of oil per day to China and, in return, Chinese telecommunications company Huawei will install high-efficiency 5G technology in the Kingdom. The Saudi market has numerous Chinese companies operating in various fields, from communications, such as Huawei, to electric power, such as Power China Nuclear Engineering for electric power construction. Huawei also plans to move its regional headquarters to Saudi Arabia.
According to Asharq business, the first Saudi-Chinese cooperation project under the One Belt One Road initiative was launched in 2019. It is a factory of the Chinese company Pan Asia for basic industries and manufacturing in the city of Jazan in southwestern Saudi Arabia. It is the first Chinese investment in this particular region, with an investment worth $1.15bn in its first phase.
In an article for the US-based Foreign Affairs, Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey note that Riyadh is engaging China in areas, such as infrastructure and technology, where they believe the US is less able or willing to help. "They are also trying to acquire certain military systems, such as advanced drones, which the US has wisely kept out of reach," they say.
Exploiting the BRICS
In addition to China, Saudi Arabia has also sought closer ties with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, the BRICS. This strategy has been effective, as Riyadh was accepted into the group at the end of August 2023. Saudi Arabia is of interest to them, especially as a potential investor in the new BRICS development bank. In fact, the Kingdom's investments with the BRICS countries have exceeded $160 billion by 2022.
In an article for DW, Kersten Knipp argues that Saudi Arabia's membership could offer the country a host of potential partnerships and stronger trade relations. "At the same time, this bloc - which already accounts for 30% of world oil consumption and 22% of gas consumption - would develop as a counterweight to the Western energy market," she says.
China, more of a complement than a real substitute
For Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey, the Sino-Saudi partnership is limited to the economic sector. Beijing has tried a similar strategy of sharing its military technology in the region, but does not provide much direct military assistance to Middle Eastern countries. Chinese arms sales account for less than 5 per cent of the region's total. However, China does offer cheap and unconditional access to some of its cutting-edge technologies, mainly drones and precision-guided missiles, to customers who cannot obtain these systems from the US.
As a result, 'regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see these Chinese offerings as complements rather than substitutes for US weapons systems, which they continue to buy for their superior quality and prestige', they argue.
As part of the same strategy to pressure the US, Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering a Chinese proposal to build a nuclear power plant on its territory, according to a report in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Indeed, considering the Chinese option would put pressure on the Biden administration, which had placed preconditions on any assistance to the Saudi nuclear industry, such as a ban on uranium enrichment.
Saudi Arabia, a multi-aligned but not multi-polar power
Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey make a very important point about the Saudi view of international relations. Saudi Arabia may be multialigned, but that does not mean it is multipolar: 'The United States remains by far the principal protector of Middle Eastern security, and this position is unlikely to be challenged in the foreseeable future'.
Although the total number of US forces has decreased, it still exceeds 30,000. Washington also continues to maintain military installations in at least a dozen countries in the region and spends billions each year on security assistance in the region.
Finally, the US share of the regional arms market has even increased, say Kavanagh and Wehrey, from 47% in the 2010-14 period to 54% in the 2018-22 period, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in part because of US sanctions against Russia following its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Closer ties with India
India and Saudi Arabia agreed to expand their trade and security ties, two days after their leaders and other participants at the Group of 20 summit announced a new rail and port agreement that will link India, the Middle East and Europe.
According to Asharq Business, Saudi Arabia signed more than 50 agreements with India during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane's visit to New Delhi after attending the summit. These agreements ranged from energy to many other areas such as green and renewable energy, technology, communications, manufacturing, defence, food, culture and cinema. Although there is no definitive value for the projects, they have been estimated to cost close to $3 billion, according to Saudi Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih, who called it "the beginning of a series of good news".
The two countries have emphasised business start-ups and entrepreneurship, with the aim of benefiting from the characteristics of both countries' businesses. Saudi Arabia and India have agreed to cooperate in the field of start-ups, to encourage entrepreneurs in both countries and provide them with support and capital, with the aim of tapping into the huge markets of the two countries.
India is currently Saudi Arabia's second largest trading partner, while Riyadh is considered New Delhi's fourth largest partner. In 2023, the value of bilateral trade reached $52.76 billion and Indian imports from Riyadh increased by 23.47% to $42.03 billion.
The Spice Route, a counterweight to China's Silk Road project?
At the G20, the United States promoted an ambitious logistical 'corridor' project linking India and Europe with the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia as a key player. According to a White House statement, an agreement in principle was signed in New Delhi on Saturday between the United States, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, France, Germany and Italy.
This new route would reportedly pass through Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, according to statements to the press by Saudi Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih on the sidelines of the Saudi-India investment conference.
The Saudi minister said the project would be equivalent to "the Silk Road and the Spice Route combined, in terms of the connectivity it will provide in terms of data, energy, green materials, and processed and ready-to-use goods to rebalance global trade".
On X (formerly Twitter), Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, believes that, if this project were to actually "materialise, it would be a game changer" and "would aim to counterbalance the BIS".
Saudi Arabia's recent foreign policy shift towards multi-alignment, in particular turning towards Asian partners such as China and India, reflects a major strategic transformation in the Middle East region. Riyadh's main objective is to diversify its portfolio of economic partners and reduce its traditional dependence on the US. Growing tensions between Riyadh and Washington, especially under the Biden administration, have prompted the kingdom to explore new horizons for its international relations.
Of particular note is the rapprochement with China, with important investment agreements and increased cooperation in various sectors. However, it is important to note that China is not completely replacing the US as a security partner, and Saudi Arabia continues to maintain close ties with Washington in this area.
Riyadh is redefining its international relations by adopting a multi-aligned approach, seeking to diversify its economic partnerships and reduce its dependence on the US. This reflects the kingdom's transformational ambitions and its desire to play an increasingly important role on the world stage, while seeking to maintain strategic ties with its traditional partners.