By strengthening relations with China, Saudi Arabia can avoid isolation

By He Wenping Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/25 18:38:40

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wrapped up his Asia trip on Friday. His whirlwind tour has not only drawn worldwide attention but also been interpreted by the media as the result of the "Look East" policy, adopted by the oil exporting giant which faces new international challenges.

The visit was meant to consolidate Saudi's goal of seeking diversified economic development. As the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia excessively depends on petrodollars. This makes it vulnerable to drastic fluctuations in international oil price. Since the sharp downturn in oil price in the latter half of 2014, Saudi's fiscal deficit surged to about $130 billion in 2015, which amounts to 19.5 percent of its GDP. 

To move away from an oil-based economy, Saudi Arabia issued its Vision 2030 in 2016. The policy seeks to develop non-petroleum sectors such as clean energy, infrastructure and high technology. Currently, 70 percent of its oil is sold in Asia, not to the US or Europe. Thus, Asian countries are Saudi Arabia's biggest energy buyers and sources of commodity imports. China and India are two indispensable partners for Saudi Arabia in transition from an oil-exporting country to a diversified economy.

The visit sought to achieve a balance in Riyadh's diplomacy. During the eight years of former US president Barack Obama's administration, US relations with Saudi Arabia were weakening due to easing US-Iran ties and Washington's all-out effort to reach the Iran nuclear agreement. And Saudi Arabia's nemesis - Iran - had not only come out of economic isolation by virtue of the agreement, but also expanded its influence in the Middle East by joining hands with Russia in the Syrian civil war and supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen. After US President Donald Trump took office, he began to make Saudi Arabia and Israel as pivots to take on Iran as the target of his new Middle East strategy. 

In May 2017, Saudi Arabia revived the alliance with US by signing an arms contract worth $110 billion during Trump's  official visit to Riyadh - his first after he took office. 

However, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi in 2018 put Saudi in trouble. Western countries pressured Riyadh to come out clean on the murder. 

The US Congress and CIA kept accusing the Saudi government of having a hand in orchestrating the killing of the US-based Washington Post columnist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The US House of Representatives recently decided to halt aid for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Therefore, beset by the uncertainties, the Middle East economic powerhouse has to make different bets to counter the pressure. 

Saudi Arabia's strengthened economic and diplomatic ties with China will be of paramount importance in achieving the above goals. Since China's launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi in 2016 and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud's visit to China in 2017, the BRI has continuously been linked with Vision 2030 of Saudi Arabia. China has been Saudi Arabia's biggest trade partner for eight consecutive years. The highlight of the crown prince's Asia visit was a $20 billion investment in the flagship project - China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the construction of Gwadar Port, besides in oil refining, petroleum, chemical, and power sectors. 

Saudi Arabia's efforts to strengthen relations with China can effectively relieve its isolated status by the West and improve its international image after it took a beating following Khashoggi's murder. Riyadh can also re-establish its influence worldwide and overcome diplomatic and security dilemmas brought about due to the "unreliable" US. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, always follows noninterference in others' affairs and stays neutral. 

All this has created conditions for China to play a constructive role in Middle East affairs. Stronger China-Saudi Arabia ties will certainly help Riyadh enhance its international diplomatic prospects, and stabilize the complicated situation in the Middle East. 

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a senior research fellow at the Charhar Institute. 


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