The American mind thinks in binaries. After the Cold War had split the globe between the communist and free worlds, George W. Bush split the world into two “camps:” an axis of good and an axis of evil.
Today, President Joe Biden, per the 2022 US Department of Homeland Security Strategy, has split the world into two conflicting blocs: the democratic bloc and the totalitarian bloc. Domestically, opinion on foreign policy views splits in the Democrat Republic dichotomy.
This binary thinking shapes the debate regarding the Saudi summits with China - the bilateral, Gulf, and Arab summits. The debate revolves around whether President Xi Jinping’s visit means that Saudi Arabia and its allies have opted for allying with Beijing as an alternative to Washington. Because this binary gives rise to comparisons, analysts turned their attention to the enthusiastic handshake of the Chinese president and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
Others referred to the famous warm greetings exchanged between Crown Prince Mohammed and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the 2018 G20 Summit in Argentina. As for the conclusions, many have suggested that the Saudi summits indicate that it has entered the “new Cold War” between China and the US!
The positions Biden made in the lead-up to his visit to Saudi Arabia may have contributed to reinforcing these binary analyses. In a column he wrote for an American newspaper, he explained that his visit was partially intended to be a counterweight to Chinese influence. He then emphasized this point in subsequent statements. “I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled by China and/or Russia, against the interests of both Israel and the United States and many other countries.”
The fact of the matter is that scene in Riyadh and the current political moment, in which confidence in Washington has been undermined, especially in the Biden administration, encourages such hasty conclusions. It makes observers forget that this scene is the outcome of a broad and discontinuous course of events.
Aron David Millar did well to remind us of a 2004 interview between the late Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal and journalist David Ottaway in a recent article for Foreign Policy. Prince Saud al Faisal told him: “The US-Saudi relationship isn’t a Catholic marriage.” Miller then added the conclusion Ottaway drew at the time. “Saudi Arabia was not seeking a divorce from the United States.”
What was true at the time, a year after Saudi Arabia became the largest exporter of oil to China, is true today at a time when China is Saudi Arabia’s leading trade partner. Indeed, the recent summit was between the world’s largest exporter of oil and its largest importer, coming at a sensitive time for this strategic resource.
It seems that the two sides are just as aware of the limits of their relationship as they are of the opportunities it presents. Beijing is conscious of the fact that it is neither willing nor able to carry the burden of offering security guarantees in the Middle East, neither to the states of the region nor to its critical corridors or international trade routes. Meanwhile, the Saudis know that there is no comprehensive alternative to the military, security, and strategic relationship with Washington.
Both sides keep these limitations in mind despite their reassurance regarding the model on which their relationship is founded, shared interests and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs.
Saudi Arabia is well aware of where its interests lie. It knows that there is no alternative to Washington on three matters that go beyond political interest.
1- Whatever form the emerging Saudi-Chinese military relations take, Saudi armament, training, command and control centers, and the administration of the army have been entirely American for nearly 80 years. Moreover, intelligence and security coordination and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States are crucial for the Kingdom’s security.
2- Saudi Arabia has made massive investments in US Treasury bonds and gold reserves, as well as making sovereign investments in US stock markets.
3- Saudi Arabia, as a regional and global financial, commercial and investment hub, particularly since Vision 2030, depends on integration within the international financial and monetary system, in which Washington has more power and influence than any of its partners and competitors.
China is important, as is Washington. Contrary to the expectations of American binary thinking, the Kingdom is not in a position to choose between either of the two countries.
A long Foreign Affairs article explains that Crown Prince Mohammed believes that a fluid geopolitical order made up of a group of interlinked components is emerging. He believes that Saudi Arabia has a right to work with a wide array of partners to invigorate markets and develop political solutions.
This vision resembles the dream of the 1970s Non-Aligned Movement, except here, the common goal is taking every opportunity to further national interests, not giving rise to post-colonial nations. This comes at a time when allies’ confidence in Washington has been undermined around the world, not just in Saudi Arabia.
Emanuel Macron’s recent “60 Minutes” interview speaks to this fact. “I do. So my point is just I want us to be allies, I want us to be friends, I want us to be partners. I want to engage with the US but I don’t want to be dependent. And I think this is very important, because just imagine, on your side, would you accept as US citizen to say, ‘My security, my— my future will depend on an election in France?’ No, I cannot imagine.” This is precisely what the leaders of the Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have been saying… The US is a friend, but it is not the only friend invited to the party.