China is developing closer relations with Middle Eastern countries and its growing economic presence there has been accelerated by the waning influence of the U.S. in the region since 2011. Unlike Washington, Beijing prioritizes harmonious, sustainable, and economic ties rather than breeding hatreds, spawning violence, and creating instability. Middle Eastern leaders, particularly Saudi Arabia, have welcomed China’s non-interference approach. Nevertheless, many Western countries worry about China emerging as a more important player in the Middle East.
In recent years, political pundits have paid closer attention to the relations between Beijing and Riyadh, the most important ally of Washington in the Gulf region. China and Saudi Arabia respect each other’s sovereignty, and they do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Over the years, both countries have developed a special relationship based on a win-win mentality. Although Saudi Arabia is the last Muslim country in the Middle East to recognize China as a nation (1990), growing ties brought the two countries much closer over time.
Saudi Arabia respects Beijing’s core interests, unlike the U.S. and its allies that challenge Beijing over its territorial claims in Taiwan region and the South China Sea, among other issues that Beijing considers sensitive. In a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in 2019, the Saudi leader endorsed China’s right to undertake “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures. Apart from this influential figure, many high-ranking Saudi officials remain commitment to the one-China principle.
Having established closer relations with Middle Eastern countries after becoming an oil importing country in 1993, China became the world’s largest importer of crude oil in 2017. Beijing imports the vast majority of its oil from Saudi Arabia. This makes Saudi Arabia one of the most critical countries in the region for China. In 2021, Saudi Arabia’s total share of China’s oil imports rose to 17 percent, making it Beijing’s largest oil supplier followed by Russia. While the total trade volume between Beijing and Riyadh reached $65.2 billion in 2020, the trade volume between the two countries is balanced. In addition to becoming economic partners, both countries collaborate on security issues.
In recent years, the ties between the two countries have gotten stronger. In 2019, Saudi Arabia and China signed 35 agreements worth $28 billion at a joint investment forum during a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to Beijing. In August this year, Saudi Aramco signed a MoU with Chinese oil giant Sinopec. According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia and China have been negotiating to price some oil sales in Chinese yuan. Beijing is deepening its partnership with Riyadh. It wants to go beyond being a country that only buys energy products from Saudi Arabia. Part of China’s goal is to diversify its energy transit lines.
Accordingly, many countries in the Middle East have been included in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This inclusion has been brought about significant investments in these countries. Saudi Arabia’s share in BRI investments has expanded significantly over the years. A report by the Shanghai-based Green Finance and Development Center revealed that Saudi Arabia was the largest recipient of BRI investments, with an investment of about $5.5 billion in H1 2022.
All these developments indicate that the relations between China and Saudi Arabia will become more deep-rooted in the future. Through the BRI, Beijing and Riyadh will get more integrated economically. As ties between Washington and Riyadh become weaker and weaker, Beijing will have more opportunities to fill the friendship gap in the Middle East. However, Washington will do everything possible to maintain the Gulf region’s status quo and protect its petrodollar status around the globe.
Therefore, Beijing has much to gain by strengthening its relations with Riyadh. Although the relations between China and Saudi Arabia seem cordial, the ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are not expected to loosen much. Saudi Arabia relies on the U.S. for its security, and it needs Washington to contain Iran’s influence in the region.
Besides, the rivalry between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel has contributed to much insecurity in the region, and this rivalry will not end anytime soon. Beijing’s strategy “be everyone’s friend, no one’s enemy” ensures that Beijing does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Middle East. The drawback is that it encourages Riyadh to maintain strong ties with Washington. Regardless, the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia is remarkable, and it’s crucial to remember that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”