DUBAI – Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet approved a decision on Wednesday to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), marking another step closer to China despite concerns from its traditional ally, the United States.
The memorandum grants the kingdom the status of the dialogue partner in the SCO, a political and security union spanning Eurasia that includes China, India and Russia. The SCO is seen as a geopolitical counterweight to the United States and Western powers.
The body was created in 2001 to counter US hegemony in the region, and was later expanded to include India and Pakistan. Iran also joined the union with full membership last year.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to join and obtain dialogue partner status was discussed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom in December, according to Reuters sources, who reported that the first is expected to lead to full membership. step this.
Riyadh’s growing ties with Beijing have raised concerns with Washington and momentum has gathered momentum in recent months.
Emily Hawthorne, senior Middle East analyst at the US-based Risk Assistance Network and Exchange, sees this move as Saudi Arabia choosing a side but not picking one.
“It’s really important not to see this as [the kingdom] abandon or deliberately weaken any ties with the United States,” she said, adding that Washington remains Riyadh’s main guarantor of security.
Saudi Arabia seems to be trying to diversify its global partnerships in the same way that it is diversifying its economy into non-oil sectors and reducing its dependence on a single source.
The SCO, founded some 22 years ago, is still young compared to its nearly 74-year-old Western counterpart, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
Hawthorne said that while security is the main goal of both organizations, the SCO and NATO still do not have the same security and military weight.
“It serves more as a forum for dialogue between Eurasian countries with common interests. Non-alignment with the Western or US world order,” she told Al-Monitor. She also said, security is the main goal of the SCO and its members will engage in joint military exercises in order to be able to fight on the same side in the future.
Saudi Arabia continues to maintain strong security ties with the United States, particularly regarding arms acquisitions. The United States, the world’s top arms exporter, was the largest exporter to the Middle East and North Africa and accounted for 54% of arms sold to the region from 2018 to 2022 , according to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
By joining the SCO, Saudi Arabia’s security relationship with China is currently flourishing. But this relationship is nothing new and goes back years before.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recognizes ballistic missile sales from China to Saudi Arabia as far back as the 1980s, with reported sales in 1992, 2007 and 2014.
In 2021, the kingdom imported sensitive missile technology from the Chinese military to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Hawthorne said the kingdom wants more advanced technology from the United States and will diversify its sources to get it.
“Western-made equipment will still fit the bill for many of Saudi Arabia’s needs. But drones and planes that are not the latest fifth generation jets and the like – Saudi Arabia can get those at a much better price from countries like China, South Korea, Turkey and Russia,” said she told Al-Monitor.
This will be a growing concern for Washington, Hawthorne added. She said the current US strategy is to withdraw from the Middle East to better address domestic issues and competition with China. But if China is becoming more active in the region, with the Gulf countries in particular, the United States may have to ask itself whether it will restore, or increase, its presence in the region.
“I don’t think there is an answer to that yet. I believe that is being actively discussed in Washington right now,” she said.
Earlier this week, the Aramco Aramco signed two deals to build a major refining and petrochemical complex in China worth billions of dollars.
Almost three weeks ago on March 10, a surprise deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran ended seven years of political conflict, brokered by China.
These growing ties came to light with President Xi’s three-day visit to the kingdom’s capital in December, the first time in nearly seven years that a Chinese president has visited its key energy ally.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest supplier of crude oil, and China, the largest energy consumer, have met to discuss their ambitions for an initial $29.26 billion deal.
The United States was Riyadh’s largest trading partner at $76 billion in 2012, but now China, India and Japan have surpassed the United States, and trade was only $29 billion in 2021, according to Bloomberg.