China can be an Alternative Strategic Ally for Saudi Arabia

Various political and economic crises in the Middle East and globally have demonstrated a crucial need for Saudi Arabia to have more strong allies beside the current one (USA), and China can be a possible choice. Saudis have realized that depending on one ally, even if that ally is strong, is a very dangerous strategy, so they have been trying to create a reliable confederation. Riyadh has opened several relation fronts with different rising countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The latter of these seems the most reliable option as both the Chinese and the Saudi side may have mutual needs which could lead to a strong partnership.

Four Reasons for Choosing China as an Alternative Partner

This paper will focus on why China can be a dependable partner during this period of time. The answer indicates that there are various reasons for opting for China, and this paper will focus on four of these reasons. The first factor relates to the fast growing Chinese economy and its huge demands for energy. The second reason is the apparent Chinese desire to build very strong relations with the Saudis. The third reason is a consequence of the weakness that has started to shape the Saudi-US relationship. Finally, this paper will highlight the importance of Beijing as a permanent member of the Security Council to support some cases that are of particular concern to Riyadh.  The essay will conclude with a brief summary and a final thought.

China has a Strong Economy and Significant Energy Demands

China is a rapidly rising power needing a considerable amount of energy both for its present needs and future needs. According to Leverett & Bader, it can be noted that almost fifty percent of the universal growth of energy requirements during this decade is a result of the demand by China. In addition, predictions have indicated that the Chinese’s needs of energy will continue growing at least until 2025 (2005, p.189). Moreover, Ulrichsen (2011, p.233) has stated that China consumed almost forty percent of the oil supply between 2004 and 2007. Besides, it is predicted to continue at the same level of petroleum expenditure until 2030. Some estimates indicate that China’s consumption of oil will reach fifteen million barrels every day by 2035, which means almost double the 2009 level (Al-Tamimi, 2012, p.2).

As a result of its economic evolution, Chinese oil imports increased from $664 million in 1980 to $235.75 billion in 2011, and will cost around $500 billion by 2020 (Liu, 2014, p.1). In addition to its energy demands, China, according to Al-Tamimi (2012, p.2), is the second largest economy. Furthermore, it will exceed the United Stated in 2017 to become the biggest economy for decades. This growth and strength of the economy will guarantee the selling of oil to China for a long period that may lead to stability in the Saudi economy at least during the next two decades.

The Readiness of China to Build a Solid Relationship with Saudi Arabia

The eagerness of the Chinese to develop and strengthen their alliance with Saudi Arabia may provoke Riyadh to seriously consider a closer alliance. This enthusiasm is apparent from the visit of the Chinese president. According to Manning (2000, p.79), the 1999 visit is considered as an unprecedented event in the history of the relationship between the two countries. This visit was followed by frequent trips by high level Chinese officials to Riyadh. Such diplomatic visits may indicate how China is very concerned about strengthening its relationship with Saudi Arabia which is further illustrated by the Chinese President Jintao Hu’s visit to Riyadh in 2006. In 2008 Xi Jinping, the Vice President also made an official visit to Riyadh, which was closely followed by another visit by President Jintao in the same year (Al-Tamimi, 2012, p.6). These high ranking diplomatic visits indicate that the Chinese are keen to build a strong relationship with the Saudis.

However, the Chinese enthusiasm toward the Saudis can be associated with three essential factors. The first factor relates to the desire of Beijing to receive special treatment from Riyadh when it comes to its oil demands, especially as China perceives Saudi Arabia as a dependable fuel provider for the predictable future (Lin, 2011, p.9). The second factor is a political matter that refers to the intention of China to show the United States that it is a very significant player in the international community (Leverett & Bader, 2005, pp.192-193). The third factor is connected to energy security that has become a critical issue for the Chinese, who, in 2001, declared their urgent need for oil (Yetiv and Lu , 2007, p.189). Lin (2011, p.4) has asserted that when Jintao became president in 2002, he acknowledged that  energy in general and oil, in particular, are not only essential for the stability of the Chinese economy, but also should be  treated as matters of national security. As a result of this crucial need, in 2003, China started preparing for its “unprecedented long-term national energy security Strategy (ibid, p.4). The Chinese’s eagerness of having tighter relations with Saudi Arabia in particular and the Middle Eastern countries, in general, indicates that Beijing wants to have a bigger share of this market. Liu (2014, p.2) has mentioned that China considers the region as a growing market for its exports which has been gradually expanding to be, as forecasted, the fourth or fifth  largest economic partner of China.

Recent and Unprecedented Coldness in the Saudi-American Alliance

In contrast to the Chinese eagerness to strengthen ties with Riyadh, it has been noticed that the Saudi-US partnership has weakened during the last fifteen years. Leverett (2005, p.96) stated that “there has been a perceptible anti-Saudi backlash within the American body politic since the September 11 attacks…the fact that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were of Saudi origin prompted a more thoroughgoing debate over the U.S. relationship with the Kingdom than at any time since the 1973 Arab oil embargo”. This hostile feeling of the American administration toward Saudi Arabia appears to have motivated Riyadh to look for an alternative reliable ally, and the Chinese seem to be a suitable option.  Alterman & Garver (2008, p.33) have argued that even though the economy is an essential aspect of the Beijing-Riyadh relationship, the September 11 events have created a new political angle for the Saudis. The accusation that Saudi Arabia has played a role in supporting international terrorism has prompted the Saudi government to consider closer relations with China to serve as a windbreak in case of a severe crisis developing with their relationship with the Americans.

The unfriendliness that has been shown by Saudi Arabia’s American ally may highlight the importance of developing closer ties with China which may save the country from any future American economic sanctions. Owing to considering itself as a current main player in the global system, China has started to follow an independent strategy that serves its interests regardless of American embargos against some regimes. For instance, the Chines petroleum companies are considered the principal actor in the Sudan oil industry irrespective of the American comprehensive boycott against its regime regarding the Darfur conflict (Leverett & Bader 2005, p.190). Furthermore, Arabs, in general, assume China is a reliable partner who is able to face the unwanted American hegemony in the region (Zambelis and Gentry, 2008, p.63). It could be said that American arrogance may lead   them to place embargos on some countries stating fabricated reasons. The accusation that Saudi Arabia financed terrorism (Wiktorowicz, 2005, p.75), as well as the American’s leaning toward Iran, indicates that Saudi Arabia can be a potential target anytime. Hence, it seems essential to Riyadh to strengthen its friendship with China to avoid any future embargo imposed by America.

Achieving Success in Some Critical International Issues

One crucial aspect which should not be ignored when discussing the solidification of the Sino-Saudi relations is that it may help the Saudi government to achieve greater success in its role of defending some Muslims’ rights. Saudi holds a significant responsibility to protect Muslim people and minorities’ rights all around the world. This duty may be eased through a closer relationship with the Chinese. For instance, the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Chinese Xinjiang region who suffer grievances can attain some of their rights with the assistance of the Saudis. This issue is taken seriously by Saudi activists. According to Al-Sudairi (2013, pp.14-18) it has come to a level where they are divided into two parties; one that opposes any relations with China, unless it changes its policy against the Muslim minority in that region. The second party supports building a respectable relationship in order to assist the Uyghur minority to have a better life.

Moreover, a strong relationship may help to change the Chinese position toward the Syrian crisis. China appears to not directly benefit from using its weight in the Security Council to support the Assad regime. However, it can be said that China has been doing this as a result of its strong alliance with Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, it seems that securing its needs of energy is more significant than helping its allies in a minor issue. Consequently, a steadfast Sino-Saudi friendship may provoke the Chinese to convince the Russians to find a solution that may satisfy the Syrian people and put an end to their grievances.

Additionally, building strong relations with the Chinese may not only lead to a withdrawal of its support for the Al-Assad regime, but it may also assist in exerting more pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.  Saudis should pay attention to the way China considers its allies. According to Erica Downs, Lin (2011, p.7) has stated that while Beijing views Saudi Arabia as a reliable partner, it considers Iran as a very harsh place to invest. Saudis should utilise this impression when expanding their business with Beijing and show her that it can be a possible substitution to its tough Iranian ally. If the Saudis succeed in winning more of the Iranian portion of the Chinese’ investment, this will provide twofold benefits. Firstly, it will give the Saudis a very potent ally who can support their causes in various cases, especially in those cases which involve Iran. Secondly, weakening ties with Iran in favor of a very strong American ally such as Saudi Arabia may assist China to achieve more privileges from the US as a prize for embargoing Iran. Of course, this argument does not mean that China would boycott its old Iranian ally. Nevertheless, it provides China a dependable alternative to the energy issue that may decrease its fears when it chooses to move against them.

China has, on various occasions,  favored its own self- interests over its alliance with some other country. For instance, China has stopped its assistance to Iran in order to save and attain more privileges from the United States (Alterman & Garver, 2008, p.39). There are two lessons from this case that the Saudis should heed; one is that increasing the cooperation with Beijing seems to help to exert more pressure on the Iranian nuclear program. The second lesson is that China may behave in the same manner against them in the future depending on China’s shifting self -interests. This awareness is owing to the change of the Chinese mentality. According to Zambelis and Gentry (2008, p.63), despite the importance of the old relationship between the Arabs and the Chinese which brings them closer, Beijing has changed the way it draws its policies. Instead of “ideological affinities” that used to decide the borders of relationships during the Soviet era, China today is driven by strategic interests.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, it is almost certain that strengthening the relationship with China is a strongly favorable strategic option. In addition to Chinese eagerness to have distinguished relations with the Saudis, China can be an absorbing market for Saudi energy production. Having substantial ties with China may motivate the Americans to warm their old alliance with Saudi Arabia which have soured since September 11. Moreover, firm relations with China may assist to release the huge pressures on Riyadh’s shoulders concerning some crises that have religious dimensions. It is feasible that with the help of Beijing, the Saudi government can play a crucial role in unraveling some current political crises such as that of the Uyghur people in China itself and the Syrian civil war. In conclusion, it appears very important for Saudi leaders to realize that relations with the Chinese are built on mutual interests. This means that Beijing may provide Riyadh the support it needs in some cases as a payment for some services, but this support may be diverted to an opposing side depending on benefits and interests- not ideological and cultural aspects.

Fahd Alghofaili

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