Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner on Tuesday was hailed as a significant development of Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
The decision was thought to be motivated by economics, but the geopolitical implications of the agreement cannot be estimated.
In addition to Saudi Arabia becoming the main exporter of oil to China in 2022, Beijing also facilitated an important thaw in relations between Riyadh and Tehran in March.
The Saudi-Iranian deal, which surprised many regional analysts, only seemed to underscore China’s growing influence in the region and its ability to shape and mediate bitter rivals.
“Riyadh understands that choosing one relationship with one side at the expense of the other side will have a heavy cost,” said Najah Al-Otaibi, a Saudi policy analyst based in London.
Stay informed with MEE newsletters
Sign up to receive the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked
“Saudi Arabia wants to develop its relationship with China, its largest commercial partner, and maintain a relationship with its security partner, the United States,” she told Middle East Eye.
The SCO is a political and security union of countries spanning much of Eurasia, including China, India and Russia, designed as a counterweight to Western influence in Asia.
Iran applied for membership of the SCO in 2008 and is one of four observer states in the organization. Last year, the security body approved Iran’s application for membership, overcoming concerns about allowing a country under UN and US sanctions into the group.
‘With China’s emergence as a rising international power, Riyadh does not want China’s relations in the region to be limited to… Iran’
– Najah al-Otaibi, Saudi policy analyst
China also signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Iran last year in an effort to deepen and expand the two countries’ bilateral relations.
“With the emergence of China as a rising international power, Riyadh does not want China’s relations in the region to be limited to strategic relations only with Iran,” Al-Otaibi said. “Saudi Arabia aims to strengthen the weight of the Gulf and Arabia in the circle of China’s relations with the region.”
After the agreement with Saudi Arabia, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning said: “We are ready to strengthen cooperation with the Saudi side within the framework of the SCO to make greater contributions to maintain regional security and stability and promote common development ahead.”
For its part, Riyadh is in the midst of an ambitious reform program called Vision 2030, a central plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to modernize the kingdom.
“The relationship with China provides various economic opportunities that meet the directives of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seeks to diversify the kingdom’s economy and attract large foreign investments in the fields of infrastructure, manufacturing and technology,” explained Al-Otaibi .
It is also believed that the Chinese government is looking to lay the foundations of a post-American order, and more broadly a post-Western order, in the region, a strategy that is widely seen as a shot across the bow by the US Carter Doctrine, which sees the Gulf of Persia as its exclusive sphere of influence.
“For many years, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with China has been deepening within the context of a more multipolar environment,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of the Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics.
“It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Beijing in the decision of Riyadh’s foreign policy,” he told MEE, adding, however, that Saudi Arabia is still many years away from becoming a full member of the SCO.
Cafiero added although the power and influence of the SCO should not be overemphasized and is not ready to replace the US security role in the region, China is trying to establish itself as a security arbiter.
“There is no way one could compare the SCO to NATO. It is not a military alliance. Rather, it is a political economic union,” Cafiero said.
‘Saudi Arabia sees its relationship with China as extremely important to the kingdom’s future’
– Giorgio Cafiero, Middle East analyst
As competition between the US and China intensifies, the growing economic link between the region and Beijing appears to be the lubricating factor in the expanding relationship.
The United States is largely watching as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states made a geo-economic pivot to the east.
According to Cafiero, Saudi and Gulf oil exporters export more of their oil to the east than they do to the west. “This is the reality of the world we live in, and it was understandable why Saudi Arabia saw it in its interest to take this step towards joining the SCO.”
“Saudi Arabia sees its relationship with China as extremely important for the future of the kingdom,” Cafiero said.
The Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia are increasingly, unlike in the past, choosing to diversify their relations. The Saudis do not want to burn their bridges with the West as they move closer to China, Cafiero pointed out.
“The Saudis want to have more of a non-aligned foreign policy where they have good relations with Western countries as well as good relations with Eastern countries. In Riyadh, the idea is that the zero sum mentality,” Cafiero added.