China-Saudi Arabia ties: A shift in global order?

China-Saudi agreements herald a new era with potentially far-reaching implications.



December 13, 2022

DHAKA – Amid continued economic and political disturbances around the world in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war, signs of what could potentially be a shift in the global order came in the form of “milestone” agreements between China and Saudi Arabia recently. On Thursday, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multiple-day visit to the kingdom, the two countries signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement that includes a number of deals and memoranda of understanding. On Friday, Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman participated in a major meeting. In these, the two sides have agreed to support each other on a swathe of wide-ranging global issues including oil, technology, infrastructure and security, while adopting a policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs – presumably including on issues of human rights and domestic rule.

For a traditional ally of the United States to form a strategic partnership with a country viewed as a top threat to the US’ global dominance is interesting indeed. It comes amid frayed ties between the US and both countries over oil production, human rights abuses and other issues, indicating a change in the global geopolitical order – away from the US. It should be noted that the US-Saudi alliance, which has endured through seven Saudi monarchs and 15 presidents, has been basically built on an oil-for-security premise. Riyadh could count on US weapons, and the US could “almost always” count on cheap Saudi oil. That understanding seems to have changed under US President Joe Biden, following the blowback over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, and later when the Saudi-led OPEC+ decided to cut oil production in October. That decision appeared to benefit Russia – another challenger to the US dominance – amid sanctions on Russian energy that drove up fuel prices around the world, including in the US.

Although, after the agreements with China, Saudi Arabia has maintained that it doesn’t believe in choosing sides, it is clearly choosing friends through the lens of its interests. Saudi Arabia and China have a shared interest in the oil markets. China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil, for which it is heavily reliant on Saudi Arabia. For Saudi Arabia, China is its largest trading partner, with Chinese exports reaching USD 30.3 billion in 2021 while Saudi exports totalled USD 57 billion in the same year. Having the world’s second-largest economy as a critical partner can have far-reaching implications as Saudis push to diversify their economy as well as alliances. In fact, as Reuters reported, Riyadh is thought to have signed USD 30 billion in defence contracts with China. Clearly, a stronger alliance will be beneficial for both countries on multiple levels.

A single alliance doesn’t represent a major shakeup or realignment in the global order, however. Only time can say whether this will be a pattern and, if it does, how the future will pan out as a result. We need to keep our eyes open.

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