As Longterm Partnership With Us Fades, Saudi Arabia Seeks to Diversify Its Diplomacy – And Recent Deals With China, Iran and Russia Fit This Strategy

By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for Kuwait, Rice University. Originally published at The Conversation.

The fact that Saudi Arabia entered a rapprochement deal with Iran and chose China to broker it came as a surprise to many international observers.

The agreement, officially called the Joint Trilateral Statement, was signed in Beijing on March 11 and begins the process of restoring diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran. Those ties were severed in January 2016 after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Iran in the aftermath of the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric who had criticized Saudi treatment of its Shiite minority.

As an analyst of Saudi foreign policy, I’ve seen how the kingdom’s decision to engage in this way with Iran and China is part of a broader diversification of the kingdom’s international relationships that has unfolded over the past decade. To close observers of geopolitical trends in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the China-brokered deal fits into a pattern.

From being firmly a part of the anti-communist camp during the Cold War and closely tied into U.S.-led regional security networks in the Persian Gulf, Saudi foreign policy is now taking a nonaligned stance that has become increasingly consequential for how Saudi Arabia pursues its interests.

Saudis question US partnership

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is often said to revolve around an oil-for-security dynamic in which the Saudis provide the former and the U.S. the latter.

In reality, ties have spanned a far wider spectrum than that and have been more complicated, with periods of high tension – stemming from events such as Saudi participation in the Arab oil embargo in 1973, or the involvement of Saudi citizens in the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks in 2001.

But since the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s, U.S.-Saudi relations have frayed, both in Riyadh and in Washington. The perception among Gulf leaders that the Obama administration abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 left them deeply rattled. They feared that the U.S. could abandon them just as it had done Mubarak, a longtime partner of 30 years.

This was compounded by the Gulf states’ exclusion from U.S. negotiations with Iran, initially in secret bilateral talks in 2013 and subsequently as part of the P5+1 framework of the U.N. Security Council permanent members, plus Germany, which culminated in the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

And then in 2019, a missile and drone attack on Saudi oil infrastructure temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s production. The attacks were linked, but never formally attributed, to Iran. President Donald Trump responded by declaring it had been an attack on Saudi Arabia, not on the U.S., drawing a distinction between their interests. Trump’s remarks, and subsequent inaction, caused shockwaves in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals as leaders began to question U.S. credibility as a reliable regional partner.

Finally, in 2021, the chaotic nature of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, served to reinforce deeply-rooted perceptions about U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, irrespective of the situation in reality.

Pivot to booming China

It is against this backdrop of pragmatic acknowledgment of its own vulnerabilities to regional and global tensions – and entrenched uncertainty about the role of the U.S. as a long-term partner – that Saudi Arabia began to broaden its international relationships, with particular attention on China.

Officials across the Gulf believe China will replace the U.S. as the dominant economic and energy superpower in the 21st century. For more than a decade, a majority of oil and gas from the six Gulf monarchies has flowed east to Asia in quantities that far exceed the cargoes heading west to Europe and North America.

In a further sign of deepening bilateral ties, in December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia to sign investment agreements across 34 sectors, ranging from green energy and information technology to construction and logistics.

Moving toward reconciliation with Iran

Meanwhile, the Saudi outreach to Iran has been more than three years in the making.

It began after the 2019 oil attacks and focused initially on de-escalating regional tensions. Saudi and Iranian officials held five rounds of dialogue in Iraq between 2020 and 2022 to try to bridge the issues that divided them. These meetings formed the backdrop to the China-brokered deal in Beijing.

Reports have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to the kingdom, possibly during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began on March 22. Any such visit would indicate a political will on both sides to move beyond the two decades of rancor and acrimony that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and doomed an earlier phase of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement at the turn of the century.

A Saudi reconciliation with Iran would undermine attempts by the U.S. and Israel to increase Iran’s international isolation and is consistent with a Saudi desire to de-escalate regional tensions. This is particularly the case as Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil revenue, reaches its halfway stage and begins to implement the infrastructure and tourism giga-projects associated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Launched in 2016, Vision 2030 has struggled to attract international buy-in, in part due to investor concerns about regional insecurity and its spillover into Saudi Arabia.

Balancing act on Ukraine

Saudia Arabia’s unwillingness to take sides in great power competition is also evident in policy responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, has resisted pressure to take sides in an era of strategic rivalries. One manifestation of this balancing act has been the Saudi decision to work with Russia within the framework of the oil producers group OPEC+ – and at the same time engage with U.S. officials over issues of oil output and prices.

The Saudi deal with Iran and choice of China as an intermediary is consistent with a deeper shift in Saudi foreign policy, which has been evident for some time. By adapting to changing circumstances, Mohammed bin Salman is looking to Saudi Arabia’s future and trying to strike a wider balance of power in what he sees as an eventual “post-American” Gulf.

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  1. James

    So basically KSA changed sides because USA was not sufficiently supportive of dictatorships it had been aligned with? OK – but no mention of US effectively confiscating $600bn in Russian reserves or the Bank of England confiscating Venezuelan gold?

    If I am a country with a bad human rights record and I have a huge amount of assets parked in western countries – I would be worried that US/EU is going to wake up one day and in a “fit of conscience” confiscate the savings that my country had taken decades to accumulate.

    1. digi_owl

      It may also be that the Saudis are running out of cash, no matter how absurd that may sound.

      I think the recent IPO of Aramco found it to have less reserves listed than the market was expecting. And the Saudis were sponsoring one side in Yemen for a decade, and were also funneling money and arms to groups in Syria.

      Their recent refusal to open the valves at Biden’s request may also point towards them needing a high oil price to refill coffers and get the most out of whatever they have left.

      1. Louis Fyne

        Also that the Saudi population keeps growing.

        Years ago, supporting 10 million (and the very Saudi royal family) from the oil was easy.

        40 million? Not without a diversified economy.

        China can help Saudi Arabia transition to a non-resource economy, the US can’t.

        1. Phenix

          What are they going to build?

          They already overtax their natural resources and do not have a population to that is conducive to industrialization.

          I wonder what radical Wahhabist clerics think of a Saudi/Iran relationship.

          1. Paris

            Petrochemicals, if you have been reading the news lately. And tourism, as the article states.

          2. Daniil Adamov

            >I wonder what radical Wahhabist clerics think of a Saudi/Iran relationship.

            I wonder if some bright bulbs in the CIA and similar institutions are wondering the same.

    2. Daniil Adamov

      I’m not sure they “changed sides” so much as “are hedging their bets”, like Tito did and like Lukashenko used to do (to give just two examples). Playing the West and the East against each other is much better than depending on either (but especially the former – I think Kissinger got that right in his famous and much-repeated quote).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, its a mistake to see this as some sort of fundamental shift. KSA, along with all small to mid sized powers, always hedge their bets and play off one side against another. This is how you survive and not get swallowed up and become a historical footnote. Even in their most pro-US times, KSA always maintained links either directly or indirectly with other powers, including Russia and China. Iran was the exception because of historical rivalries, although these seem to be now tempered with a realisation that they have more to gain by burying the hatchet, for now at least.

        It does seem that MbS has become very angry with Biden in particular, and has moved significantly over to cosy up to the perceived rival powers, but for pragmatic reasons alone (i.e. someone has to maintain all those F-15’s), they will never throw in their lot with anyone else. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised that if Trump came back to power we’d see a swing back the other way. The view from a shaky regional capital like Riyadh (KSA being a relatively recent ‘invention’) always looks very different from a ‘major’ continental capital city. You are surrounded by a myriad of potential threats and allies internally and externally and you always have to ensure that at the very least, your worst enemies don’t have a reason to gang up against you. Genuine shifts in fundamental strategy are usually many years in the making and are usually only apparent to outsiders many years later.

        1. Daniil Adamov

          I do think they decided the US is a less reliable bet, since its influence in many parts of the world is on the retreat. They are, at the very least, willing to explore alternatives they have not previously considered (i.e. Iran, though it’s too early to tell how long this reconciliation will last and how far it will go). To me that says they are more wary than before about relying on US for their protection. Reconciling with Iran under Chinese auspices introduces the added protection of Chinese diplomacy and money to the existing American military factors. That may mean a shift, but so far it is a tentative and limited one. It could indeed swing back around (a big win for Trump). Even if not I expect them to use the possibility of such a swing as leverage if they ever have disputes with their new “allies”.

        2. David

          Yes indeed: as you say this is how small and medium-size states survive. It’s worth adding that the original bargain was that the West agreed to help the Al-Saud family stay in power in the KSA (it had put them there, after all) and in return the Kingdom would place substantial contracts with the West, especially for military equipment. In a further twist, the presence of lots of western advisers in the country, military and others, would both bind the West more closely to them, and act as a disincentive for any other power to attack them. (In effect, the Saudis had large numbers of western hostages.) But we’ve moved on since those days, and the Saudis are casting their net rather wider. If there are things the US can’t do (like arrange a rapprochement with Iran) they’ll turn to those who can.

  2. LawnDart

    Well, this’ll get interesting:

    U.S. Shale Boom Shows Signs of Peaking as Big Oil Wells Disappear

    America’s biggest oil gushers are shrinking, evidence that companies have drilled through much of their best wells

    …At a major industry conference here this week, executives cited the stagnation in shale, saying it signaled a return to more dependence on foreign energy sources and more challenging times ahead for major U.S. companies, after most of them posted record earnings last year.

    I’m with James in the sense that KSA logically may wish to at least hedge its bets against an increasingly unstable, unpredictable “partnership” with the USA– they’re way too exposed to the crazy, and they’ve seen first-hand the damage it could wrought: remember, Saddam was USA’s friend in the 80s.

    No way in hell KSA will ever achieve autarky, so it needs to play nice in the world. Not having enemies (or friends) hellbent on your destruction allows for a greater measure of security in a rapidly-changing world.

    1. James

      LawnDart wrote:
      “… remember, Saddam was USA’s friend in the 80s”

      Yes! Noriega was a similar case.

  3. Rubicon

    “Officials across the Gulf believe China will replace the U.S. as the dominant economic and energy superpower in the 21st century.

    There’s a much wider scope than *just* the Gulf Officials who perceive that China/Others are moving away from the US and its Financial Hegemony. Top Western economists are very aware of this shift away from US Dominance. Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, Dr. Michael Hudson; philosophers ie, Dr. Veghi in England and many others. Take Brezinski: a few years before he died, he published articles stating that the US Oil/Financial/Military Hegemony was slowly dying.

    What seems to be left out of this essay is WHY China, Russia, some African/Latin American and Saudi Arabia are veering eastward towards China………The central reason behind these shift has everything to do with HOW The US Financial Powers have treated those nations. Except for China, the US’ IMF Loans and World Bank have bankrupted these nations. The US has turned these countries into slave states demanding them to grow crops the US no longer produces. At the same, the US has gone in and plundered many mineral, land and other valuable resources from all those countries.

    As circumstances have unfolded, Saudi Arabia sees itself further imbedded with the high costs of its relationship with the US. It’s becoming more attractive to do business with China, Russia, other non-Western nations, as a result.

    If you read how Western financial powers rise then fall, they always repeat the same behaviors: A Republic, or Nation rises to the exclusion of lesser powers. It’s dominance becomes intrusive towards smaller powers; then the smaller powers group together to form their own trade, that encroaches on the Hegemon; eventually dividing and rupturing that power. See how the British Empire, The Dutch Republic, Spanish power were all vanquished by these sequence of events.

  4. JeremyGrimm

    “For more than a decade, a majority of oil and gas from the six Gulf monarchies has flowed east to Asia in quantities that far exceed the cargoes heading west to Europe and North America.”
    An after-effect of the decline in u.s. Industry and the industry of Europe?

    What does the Saudi-Iran rapprochement mean with respect to religious tolerance in Islam? Can the Sunnis tolerate the Shi’ite heresy and — from another point of view the opposite of that? What else might be tolerated?

    What I regard as the preeminenant importance of diesel as the fuel of commerce suggests to me that marriages between countries producing relatively light sweet crude like Saudi Arabia with countries producing heavier crude like Iran[? — not sure if Iran’s crude is relatively heavy or light not sure how sweet their crude —-] and/or Venezuela might net an especially nice return to both producers … and if they were to invest in refineries …. I wonder whether China or Russia might be more helpful than the u.s. with helping the Saudis and/or Iran and/or Venezuela build oil refineries.

    After the mysterious destruction of the natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — is there any reason to fear that the u.s. might make any Saudi or Iranian refineries ‘difficult’ to establish and run?

    I am shooting from the hip … please shoot me down in as many ways as you can. [I believe the best way I can entice others to help in my learning, is to assume an aura of expertise, make assertions, and wait for corrections and argument.]

    1. Darius

      I was wondering this myself. Might MBS now find himself the target of coup attempts now that he no longer toes the US line?

      1. Jeff V

        It will be interesting to see if “Saudi human rights abuses” start to become more prominent on the mainstream news. Perhaps a big retrospective on the anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, although that is not until October.

  5. Alan Roxdale

    It must have taken herculean levels of staggering incompetence to drive Saudi Arabia of all countries outside of the US orbit. 70 years of careful, obsequious, strategic realpolitik flushed down the toilet by jumped-up staffers canting on Slack channels. There has to be some eusocial pathology to explain these implosions of empire, not that anyone will listen.

  6. the suck of sorrow

    Is KSA going to order S-400 systems for their security? Will our (USA) government take this insult?

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