Under MBS a tectonic shift in Saudi Arabia’s relations is taking place, much to the delight of China and Russia.
‘I saved his a**”, boasted former US President Donald Trump in a 2020 interview with the journalist Bob Woodward, in tapes made public last week. Trump was talking about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop”, he continued. The conversation centred on MBS’ alleged involvement in the murder in 2018 of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered by a 15-member squad of Saudi assassins at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump’s remarks were nothing less than a licence for autocrats to kill journalists with impunity: “do business with us and we’ll look the other way when you intimidate or murder critics of your government, even if they are US residents”.
Many in the US were repulsed by Trump’s transactional message. But then everything in Trump’s world is transactional. Throughout his tenure there was always tension with the State Department, which traditionally conducted its foreign policy on the basis of long-term strategic relationships. The arrival of President Joe Biden has seen America returning to this traditional style of foreign policy. But recent events show that it now clashes with Saudi’s MBS, who, by adopting a Trump-like transactional style, has embarked on a series of foreign policies which are seen to be reckless and hostile to America’s vital interests in the Middle East.
Under MBS a tectonic shift in Saudi Arabia’s relations is taking place, much to the delight of China and Russia. In the current battle between autocracy and democracy around the world, Riyadh has no ideological agenda that would bother either Beijing or Moscow. Saudi political and business elites increasingly perceive China as a superpower in the making and expect it to remain as a top destination for their energy exports for the foreseeable future, making it vital to cultivate strategic relations with a rising power.
Russia, on the other hand, is useful to Riyadh for one thing only: maintaining the price of oil. Ties between the two countries expanded steadily following the launch of OPEC Plus’ oil production arrangement in 2016 and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s historic first visit to Moscow in October 2017.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Beijing in 1990 led to a close alliance, which has become increasingly warmer in recent years. A poll taken in 2015 revealed that two thirds of Saudis had a “favourable view of China”, half of these being “very favourable”. The implication was that Riyadh was now looking east, not west, illustrated by the recent exchange between Saudi Arabia and China in 2019, when MBS visited as part of his Asian tour. This was MBS’ first big foreign trip since the Khashoggi affair and numerous deals were signed, including an agreement to build a refining and petrochemical complex in Liaoning province as a joint Saudi-Chinese venture. During the visit MBS was sharply criticized for his hypocrisy when he defended China’s repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, forgetting the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be a strong defender of Muslim rights.
But MBS can easily shake off such criticism. With no elections to bother about, he is likely to rule Saudi Arabia for many decades, which, if he lives to his father’s age of 86, could be for half a century. His lifestyle changes have been a smash-hit with the under-30s generation of Saudi Arabia, some 70% of the kingdom’s citizens, and his ambition to transform the country into a modern technological leader has ignited the imagination of youth.
Saudi Arabia is benefitting from being a central pillar of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ranking in the top three countries for Chinese construction projects. China has big-ticket developments in the kingdom, including a high-speed rail link between Jeddah and Medina and the Ras Al-Khair Maritime Complex. In 2020, bilateral trade between China and Saudi Arabia amounted to over $65 billion, compared with less than $20 billion of US-Saudi trade. Saudi Arabia is a key partner in a region of huge geopolitical importance to China. Beijing considers Riyadh to be a steady, trusted and reliable friend, and Xi’s cordial relationship with MBS contrasts with Biden’s strained personal ties. So has the tide permanently turned?
Matters were not helped by Biden’s blunder on taking office. Soon after his inauguration, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, issued the warning: “I would say we’ve made it clear from the beginning that we are going to re-calibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia”. This announcement would have been music to the ears of Xi Jinping, opening the door for yet more opportunities for Beijing. This rebuke of MBS represented a dramatic departure from the Trump White House, which made Saudi Arabia the former President’s first overseas visit, during which he signed major arms deals in defiance of congressional opposition and refrained from criticising the kingdom over its human rights violations. Biden’s snub should not have caused any surprise, however, as in the primary presidential debates in early 2020 he pledged to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are”!
Then Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, kick-starting a desperate search for oil and gas by those countries outraged by Russia’s war crimes, while presenting an opportunity of cheap oil for countries such as China, prepared to turn a blind-eye. Putin’s war changed the optics and Biden realised that MBS was someone he could no longer ignore as he sought assistance to combat rocketing prices back home. So the world saw a chastened President touch down at Jeddah in July and “fist-bump” MBS, a sight that highlighted the shift in geo-dynamics. Soaring energy costs were hitting the US economy just as Saudi Arabia was making $1 billion a day from selling oil.
But MBS has had the last laugh. Last week, the New York Times revealed that US officials believed that Biden’s top aids thought they had struck a deal with the Saudis to boost oil production through the end of the year, an arrangement that could have helped justify breaking Biden’s campaign pledge to shun the kingdom and MBS. Instead, on 5 October, Saudi Arabia colluded with Russia to get OPEC+ to agree a steep cut in production resulting in higher prices. The move enraged the White House, which claimed that MBS had duped the administration. According to the NYT, “the episode is a revealing example of how Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of its ambitious and ruthless crown prince, appears eager to shed some of its longtime reliance on the US, with MBS trying to position Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse on its own”. Even some of Biden’s staunchest supporters have called the episode an example of the administration sacrificing principles for political expediency, and having little to show for it.
Amid deep anger, the White House announced last week that it would re-evaluate the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia and expressed openness to retaliatory measures such as curbing arms sales. Robert Menendez, a Democratic Senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, argued that there should be a halt to all Saudi weapons sales, “at the very least, the Patriot missiles will be suspended”. Others argue that the sale to Saudi Arabia of advanced air-to-air missiles should be suspended and sent to Ukraine instead. There is even proposed legislation that, if passed, would force the removal of US troops and equipment from Saudi Arabia within 90 days.
Many doubt that the US would go this far, as such a dramatic move would cause huge instability in the Middle East and harm US interests. Facing daily threats from Iran and its proxies, the Saudis need a reliable source of weapons to deter those enemies and, failing that, to deter against them. China’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased by 386% in 2016-2020 relative to 2011-2015, a growth mostly accounted for by Chinese sales of armed drones, which the Saudis have not been able to purchase from US suppliers. But the US is still the predominant arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and the Saudis still rely on the US and Europe for manned aircraft. In the medium term, China could become the Saudi’s primary weapons supplier, but currently China is arming Iran, which itself poses a deadly threat to the Saudis. This conundrum will not be lost on Riyadh, leaving it little choice than to carry-on dealing with Washington.
In triangulating China, Russia and the US, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is playing a dangerous game of three-dimensional geopolitical chess in the Middle East. MBS needs to be careful, as there are limits to how much the Biden administration is going to accept from a country that’s supposed to be a critical ally—even a transactional one. But then, as many analysts are concluding, deconstructing Saudi decision-making right now is like Kremlinology on steroids.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.