Growing Saudi-China ties unlikely to prompt major Saudi policy shake-ups

Both critics and supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship are digging in on their preexisting positions

Despite rising concern in Washington about China’s inroads into the Middle East, including its increasing ties to Saudi Arabia, the recent Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran does not appear to herald any significant changes in posture toward Riyadh — from either critics or supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The latest developments appear so far to be leading both sides in the polarized U.S. foreign policy discourse on Saudi Arabia to double down on their previous positions — vocal critics of Riyadh are pushing ahead with efforts to limit U.S. ties with the kingdom, while those more supportive of the U.S.-Saudi relationship say that a closer relationship is the only way to prevent further Chinese encroachment.

Among critics of Saudi Arabia, the surprise agreement does not seem to have prompted any rethinking of efforts to tighten the screws on Riyadh. Days after the agreement was announced, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) announced new legislation aiming to force the administration to engage publicly with Congress on Saudi human rights violations and ultimately could force a Senate floor vote on cutting off aid to Saudi Arabia.

While noting that the deal represented a “continued move of Saudi Arabia away from the United States,” Murphy also said that “it’s a bit simplistic to jump to the conclusion that China getting involved in Middle East security is, by definition, bad for the U.S.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), another prominent critic of the Saudi regime and past U.S. efforts at rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, told Jewish Insider that the new ties with China compounded his reservations about Saudi Arabia.

“I already have a lot of concerns about Saudi Arabia. And certainly you see different authoritarian leaders sharing their models and their interests,” Merkley said. “We just have to realize that democracy and the rights that we have… are not things universally embraced, and that we’re going to see an ongoing competition in the world between the vision of democracy and the vision of authoritarian powers.”

Lawmakers like Murphy and Merkley’s have highlighted concerns about human rights and Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen as the centerpiece of their approach to Saudi Arabia.

“People like Chris Murphy… aren’t going to let this issue go,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JI. 

Supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, argue, however, that the U.S. needs to reinforce its relationship with Saudi Arabia, to cut off further Chinese gains, which could challenge the U.S.’ longstanding military partnership with Riyadh.

“I think what we need to do is make sure that our allies in the Middle East know that we’re going to be strong allies. This is one of the things I heard when I was there last month, that whether we’re talking about Saudi Arabia, UAE or Israel, they want to know America is going to be there,” Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) told JI. “When we send signals that we are weakening, for example, our disastrous pullout of Afghanistan, or how we didn’t respond quickly enough to the UAE when they were attacked with Houthi missiles last year, it sends a message to our allies that maybe they should be looking to China.”

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) expressed a similar view during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday, arguing that the administration’s Middle East policy writ large has undermined confidence in the U.S.

“In the Middle East, it’s clear that the administration is failing to compete with China,” Risch said. “The administration’s policies across the board have created great, great concerns for our partners… The recent deal between Saudi Arabia, China and Iran proves the U.S. is sitting on the sidelines.”

Risch said that the U.S. needs to “fix[] our approach” and cannot “turn our backs on the Middle East” even as focus shifts toward China.

Rich Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-host of Jewish Insider’s podcast, said urgent U.S. engagement and strengthened relations with Riyadh are critical to prevent further Chinese penetration into the Saudi defense ecosystem, which could complicate U.S.-Saudi military and intelligence cooperation.

“We can’t just sit back and say let’s see how this develops over the next six months, that’s malpractice,” he said. “That would only be a self-fulfilling prophecy of driving the Saudis deeper into the Chinese arms. This needs to be a five-alarm fire, wake-up call at the highest levels of the White House to engage the highest levels of Saudi Arabia.”

Goldberg said that the U.S. needs to not only outline a vision for the “next generation” of U.S.-Saudi partnership, but also lay down red lines for Saudi cooperation with China.

These differing conclusions on how the U.S. should respond to the recent trilateral agreement appear to stem from the two sides’ differing priorities for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as well as differing conclusions about the genesis of the pact.

“You’re seeing the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] decide that it’s time for Saudi Arabia to start hedging on its relationship with Washington,” Goldberg said. “They’re sticking it to Washington a bit by showing that they’re willing to work with China. Whether it’s a game of hard-to-get or it’s a decision to truly hedge is yet to be known.”

Miller characterized Democrats as generally “more interested in human rights and holding the Saudis [accountable] over Yemen,” than conservatives, who have prioritized closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, attributed the pact to the U.S.’ pullout from the Iran nuclear agreement, which he said had made it impossible for Saudi Arabia to turn to the U.S. to help reduce tensions with Iran.

“This is about Saudi Arabia trying to figure out how to change the Iranian behavior, and not being able to talk to the U.S. about engaging Iran on it, because the U.S. has basically self-selected out,” Rubin said. The Saudis, he argued, turned to China because China maintains leverage and diplomatic sway with the Iranians.

Rubin said that policymakers should recognize that “we can’t dictate to any country specifically what they can do” and that the U.S. needs to re-engage with Iran, but characterized American policy toward Saudi Arabia as well-balanced.

“Can we unilaterally get what we want every time out of every country? No. Do we sanction them only to get everything we want? Do we only talk to them and have no penalties?” he said. “I think we have the right mixture.”

Rubin also called it “ridiculous” to say that Saudi Arabia is making a break with the U.S., pointing to Riyadh’s recent multibillion-dollar purchase of Boeing airliners.

“Liberal Democrats pressuring Saudi Arabia does not cause Saudi Arabia to somehow move away — they didn’t move away,” Rubin said. “What they’re doing is they are looking at their interests in the region, and seeing hot spots with Iran, and trying to figure out how they don’t get sucked into that anymore.”

Miller agreed that Saudi Arabia is not looking to “refabricate or fundamentally transform the security architecture that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has built up over the years,” but said that concerns about U.S. reliability may have been a factor in Saudi Arabia’s thinking.

“The U.S. has demonstrated, in [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s] view, that it is a very problematic partner,” he said, highlighting the new Murphy legislation as an example of these tensions. He also pointed to ongoing Saudi security concerns, China’s long-term need for Saudi oil and a Saudi desire to “make it unmistakably clear to whoever wants to listen, that the Middle East is open for business” as contributing to the current state of affairs.

Despite the pressures from both sides, Miller predicted no major changes in U.S. policy, in either direction. The U.S. has “limited options” for altering its Saudi policy or countering China in the Middle East, and that focusing on the issue may not be a top priority as President Joe Biden looks to the 2024 election.

“It’s hard for me to imagine, right now, given congressional constraints, given our priorities, that somehow, in response to this move, the administration would even want to be in a position to be chasing after the Chinese,” he said.

Should the Saudis seek to assuage U.S. concerns about the agreement, however, Miller suggested they could undertake further steps toward normalization with Israel.

“What would help — I hate to use the word — ‘kosher’ this, would be a major move on the part of Israel and the Saudis to formalize their relationship,” Miller said. “But if you believe Prince Turki [son of Saudi King Abdullah], who said the other day, there’s got to be justice for the Palestinians before that happens.”

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